Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Passing of Father Martin

Several friends emailed me yesterday and I learned, sadly, that Father Martin passed away on Monday. Father Joseph Martin (October 12, 1924 - March, 9 2009) was one of the giants in the formative days of the alcohol and drug treatment profession. He founded one of the premier treatment centers, Father Martin’s Ashley in Havre de Grace, Maryland and was even more widely known for his educational film, “Chalk Talk on Alcoholism” made in 1972 and still used in many places.

Bah. I sound like I’m writing a newspaper obituary column. Easy to do since it was one of my first jobs out of college. But that’s not what I need to do here since a quick Google or Yahoo Search will get you anything more you want to know, including some U-Tube snippets of Chalk Talk – well worth the glance.

And I can’t say I’m devastated by the news. Father Martin had been around forever and retired from active speaking a while ago. I hate to admit it but when I heard about his death, my first thought was, “I didn’t realize he was still alive.” Which, of course, he isn’t. But he was. Aw, you know what I mean.

To the left is a picture of Father Martin posing with...I guess it is Bagman’s Head on Butler’s Body.

I had the wonderful fortune, sometime around 1984 or 1985 to be the marketing/PR guy for a small chain of treatment centers in Massachusetts. I managed to convince my boss – worthy, himself, of a blog someday – to spring for the speaking fees to get Father Martin to come up for two gala events we put together in Pittsfield and Worcester, Massachusetts.

I can’t recall the events (printing flyers, renting auditoriums, stuff like that) although I think they were successful. Mostly I remember what a great time I

had picking him up at the airport and driving around with him from place to place.

I was nervous at first. What should I say? What should I call him? Father? Mr. Martin? Joe? He got off the plane and before we got to the luggage carousel, he pointed at the men’s restroom and said, “Excuse me for a minute while I go and shed a tear for the Ku Klux Clan.”

He had disappeared behind the door before I got it. But it was just the beginning of non-stop entertainment with a message. Although the only other joke he told that I specifically remember didn’t really have a message. We were speeding along the Massachusetts Turnpike and he asked, “Do you know what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits the windshield?”

“No,” I replied truthfully.

“Its asshole,” he said.

I almost choked. Did a Catholic Priest just use the word “asshole?” Is God going to strike us both dead?

Of course, now, I’m doubting my own priorities if I was able to spend two full days with this really brilliant man and all I clearly recall are two short jokes, neither of which have anything to do with alcoholism.

Oops! No. Thankfully, that is not quite true. I just remembered one other story he told over dinner about when he was first building Ashley. I’ve never seen the place but apparently the main entry way to the building has a large foyer and a beautiful polished wood staircase and banister going up to the rooms where patients begin their detox. He said that when the cost of the staircase became known to his Board of Directors, they called him in and demanded to know why he would spend so much money to make the place look so good when it was going to be used to treat alkies.

His answer was that, by the time alcoholics reach that point in life when they need inpatient treatment, they have lost all sense of self-respect and self-worth. That their families and friends had also lost all respect for them as well. He insisted that treating them as honored guests in a beautiful place was an essential step in changing that paradigm for them and getting them sober.

I’ve internalized that lesson, although until today, I’d forgotten where I learned it. The place I work, now, is not luxurious although it is clean and functional. But everyday, as I walk up the sidewalk to the front door, I will usually stop and pick up any candy-wrappers or trash that anyone has dropped.

Tomorrow, if I do that, I’ll look up at the sky and say, “Thanks for the reminder.” Although, I’m still not sure whether I’ll call him “Father Martin” or “Joe”.


  1. How blessed you are to have known such an amazing man! How blessed you are to have been molded by such a person.
    My God comfort you and Father Martin's family, as you deal with this loss.

  2. Thanks for telling us such a great story. I loved the buggy bit. :D

  3. Hey Mark
    I am sure Father Martin, Mr Martin or Joe if he could read this post would have had quite a chuckle.
    He sure sounded like a wonderful human being.
    You certainly have a knack of relating a story...very visual mate....especially the bug bit. I never remember joke, but I be able to remember that one.

  4. Neat story, well done. Had me from the start.

    There are some really wonderful people who come into our lives. And too often, in the press of expediency, they are not apprecaited. How well I know.

  5. What a great attitude he had and I am sure his actions and effort have gone a long way to changing many people's lives.

  6. One of the good things about getting older is the ability to weigh and appreciate the important contacts we have made along the way and allow that memory to motivate us to be better people.

  7. That was a wonderful tribute! Thank you for sharing it with us! And thank God for the Father Joe's of the world. Nice to have a refresher in basic human kindness!
    Good job B&B!

  8. He sounds awesome. Inspirational and comical too. I think anyone is lucky to have had him in their company. Thank you for sharing his legacy.

  9. Very nice BB.....and funny too :)

  10. Another brilliant post, Mark. You're lining them up and hitting them out of the ball park on a regular basis.

    I really enjoy coming here, and I suspect Father Joe may have remembered a joke or a story or two from his time with you as well!

  11. hi there!

    Wow, he lived a long life but hey, he influenced a lot of people. I don't know him but he really seems like a great man.

    He is right about having a nice place for the 'alcoholics', it didn't even enter my mind.

  12. Okay, I will be serious at your blog today B&B.
    What a touching story and so beautifully told. What an awesome sounding guy and I know that it was a blessing to you to know him......
    Take good care B&B and.........

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  13. I wouldn't have known of his passing if I hadn't read your blog. He meant so much to me years ago when I first joined Al-Anon, an organization that saved my life, if not my marriage. Thanks for sharing your story.

  14. I loved reading your blog about meeting Father Martin. My family and I will be attending his funeral tomorrow in Baltimore. My husband met Father at his first AA meeting almost 30 years ago and they became very close friends. My husband saw him about a month ago and he told Bob that he was offering his pain and illness for all those still "out there". I truly believe the world is a better place because of him and we'll all miss him so much.