|Sterling Martin '63 Completes Legendary 43-Year "Run" in Davidson Athletics
January 15, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
Sterling Martin was a wisp of a young man when he enrolled at Davidson out of the West Virginia hills in 1959. He’s not much more physically imposing today, but as he retires from forty-three years of employment at the college, he leaves a huge legacy of service and achievement.
His willingness to take personal responsibility for tasks complex and dirty, and respect of students as the college’s top priority, led the college to entrust him with an unrivaled range of administrative duties in athletics. He has been assistant and head track and cross-country coach, director of intramurals and physical education, coordinator of club sports, director of the Lake Campus, and interim director of athletics on three different occasions.
In the name of Davidson, Martin has shoveled out horse stalls, clipped shrubbery off of miles of cross country trails, announced home basketball games for 25 years, mowed countless acres of Lake Campus grass, repaired boat motors, and trained legions of students to run faster, play fairly, respect each other, and mentor children.
Serving as the Institutional Memory
Martin has served seven athletic directors, four presidents, and two interim presidents. “It’s hard to keep them all straight!” he joked. But in fact, he has a superb memory that has proven valuable on the job, and has endeared him as a lively raconteur of the colorful characters and Davidson events during the modern era. “He’s been our institutional memory,” noted Jim Murphy, director of athletics. “When you wonder how a decision was made twenty years ago, Sterling can tell you exactly how. He was there, and he remembers every word of the conversation!”
Martin’s long association with Davidson is an equally colorful, rich story that will undoubtedly take its place in college lore. It began as this former student body president of Charleston High School (W.Va.) began investigating his higher education options. “Davidson looked like a college should look,” he recalled. So he filed only one application for college admission, and was accepted.
He arrived as a freshman assuming he would make his Davidson mark in the arena of student government. But he quickly found that most of his hall mates were equally credentialed. Almost by chance he found the niche for which he is legendary. Martin hadn’t been involved at all in high school athletics, but all freshmen were required to participate in the Freshman Cake Race. Coach Heath Whittle lined the boys up and fired the gun, sending them dashing en masse for the narrow downhill trail through the woods toward Erwin Lodge. At the bottom of the hill he was in the middle of the pack, but he found himself flying through the ranks on the steep uphill grade of Gray Road back toward campus. In the last twenty yards he caught the leader to win the race. “I found out something I didn’t know I could do!” he said.
In fact, though, he had been running competitively all his life under a different name—Cowboys and Indians. “We used to play it in the woods behind my home, and I raced up and down those West Virginia mountains all day long,” he said.
A Wildcat Sports Hero
At 5’6” and just 110 pounds, Martin had the slim physique and strong heart to run like a deer, and became a Wildcat sports hero. After a season on the junior varsity cross-country team, Martin was named All-Conference during his three years as a varsity athlete, and won all but six dual meets in his career. He set several school records, was captain of the team for two years, was “Most Outstanding Runner” for two years, and recorded a career best 15:07 for three miles.
From visual clues only, “scrappy” seems like an apt adjective for Martin. Born to a family of modest means, he scrapped to support himself during his student years. A poor semester spent pining over a lost girlfriend forced him to enroll in summer school in 1962. He paid for his own tuition and board by working for C. Shaw Smith in the College Union, staffing the desk at the Guest House while living in its basement, giving admission tours, and lifeguarding at the pool. “Dick Snyder, the basketball star, came for a visit that summer,” Martin recalled. “I served him breakfast at the Guest House, gave him a tour, and was at the pool when he dropped by. His father liked to joke that I was personally responsible for recruiting him!”
Martin was remarkable on campus not only for running, but also for unicycle riding. His father, who was a mechanical engineer, hand-made his first one from a bicycle, and Martin spent hours in a racketball court doggedly learning to ride it. “Then I rode it to class for most of three years,” he said, “and taught a number of other students and town children to ride. The Charlotte Observer would print an article about me riding to class almost every year, and people sent me clippings from where it was picked up by other papers all over the country.”
In fact, his fifteen minutes of world fame occurred when Newsweek magazine ran his picture to accompany an article about the unique ways students got to class. Martin continued to ride for many years, traditionally leading the town’s Fourth of July parade on his unicycle carrying the American flag, and still impresses his grandchildren by occasionally riding.
Shaw Smith's Protege
With a Davison history degree in hand in August 1963 and no particular post-graduate plans, Martin accepted C. Shaw Smith’s offer to become the College Union’s first full-time assistant director of programming, and held that job for three years. In addition to working with Smith during the school year, Martin served as the “roadie” in Smith’s traveling magic show. He not only drove the truck to Smith’s engagements, but also played piano during the act.
He sought out other ways to help make ends meet, and secured second and third jobs on campus as assistant running coach to Heath Whittle, and football statistician and color commentator on the Davidson Basketball Network.
That proved to be his entrée to a life-long career. “As Shaw would say, it was pure serendipity,” said Martin. “I had no thought of a career in athletics, but was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
He also had to begin supporting a family, having married a local girl, physics Professor John Hopkins’s daughter Mary, in 1964. The couple have raised three daughters and a son.
In 1966 he moved to the athletics department as director of intramurals and assistant track and cross country coach. As Davidson’s athletics program expanded, Martin switched jobs as needed. But for several years his athletic responsibilities were just nine month jobs. During summers, he directed the youth program at Myers Park Country Club for a few years, until in 1975 he signed on as recreational director for the new July Experience program. He maintained that responsibility until 1999.
Throughout much of his Davidson career, Martin had some responsibilities at the college Lake Campus. In 1999 the administration assigned him as the first full-time administrator at the 100-acre facility, and he has held the job since that time.
Working with a slim budget, Martin has proved his pluck and self-sufficiency in the position. He dusted off skills learned in his father’s shop to repair boat motors, patch sail boat holes, and maintain the grounds. He has done by himself whatever was needed, helping the college avoid having to pay outside workers.
The years have yielded many entertaining memories. He both chuckles and groans when talking about the college’s defunct riding program, which was headquartered at the lake for a time in the 1980s. At one point Davidson owned twenty horses used for an equestrian physical education courses. Martin managed the “farm” on a fiscal shoestring. He found himself shoveling entire truck loads of wood shavings, thawing frozen water lines on Christmas eve, and planting fields of hay for horse feed in the hot sun. On one occasion he was called into emergency service to help deliver a foal. “Horses, like sailboats, require a whole lot of money!” he observed. “The only real benefit to me was that my daughters all got to take riding lessons, and they loved it.”
Developing the Lake Campus
Martin also helped Davidson increase the revenue-generating potential of the Lake Campus by helping create a summer day camp there for area youth. In its seven years, Day Camp at the Lake has become highly successful, attracting 100 campers for each of its seven week-long sessions. The income has helped refurbish Lake Campus facilities that are used during the school year for phys ed programming, and also provided summer employment for almost thirty Davidson and other college students who serve as counselors.
Martin has found great job satisfaction in the variety of his jobs at Davidson. “I haven’t been sitting in one place for forty years. It’s been a constant education,” he commented.
He and Mary have also been tremendously active in the community, working on behalf of Davidson College Presbyterian Church and the Boy Scouts. Sterling chairs the town’s parks and recreation committee, and is also president of the Davidson Lands Conservancy. For many years he was a recreational runner, completing five marathons and many shorter races. He’s been forced recently to let other priorities rule, but hopes in retirement to start training again.
Martin has proven his service to Davidson through a distinguished career marked by thoughtfulness, determination, and personal responsibility. But he says it’s been well worth the effort. Whether cleaning out a barn or announcing basketball games, Martin said, “I’ve always felt like I had the best seat in the house!”
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