“If you shut that damm thing off, I will tell you,” Paul Martin had said over a late morning breakfast in December, 1991.
Last night, I made the tail end of visitation for Mr. Martin, 87, at Hallowell & James Funeral Home on 55th in Countryside. He died after a long battle with cancer.
As befits an athlete, entertainer and writer, Mr. Martin had a quip or joke at the ready.
One of his beloved nephews said that trait held almost to the very end. Last night, he told the story of his uncle visiting Mayo and asking a doctor how long he had. Well, the doctor stroked his chin and thought how to answer, and Mr. Martin jumped in and said, “Well, I am glad you didn’t look at your watch.”
There are probably hundreds of people that Mr. Martin aided more than me. He was that kind of guy, on many fronts. Anybody in AA in the western suburbs over the past half century probably has a story about him, most likely far better than mine.
But this is mine.
To begin, we need to go back 18 years.
I was in the first year of working my first full-time staff position on a newspaper, as a sports reporter for Suburban Life Newspapers, based in the Downers Grove office.
And loved it. But every once in awhile, SE Jim O’Connell would come up with assignments that less than thrilled me.
And I thought it was one of those on that winter morning. What kind of sports story would I get out of meeting a 69-year-old guy for breakfast?
Well, a doozy, as it turned out.
Starting with him going back and forth in Spanish with the staff, then his obviously digging into his eggs and toast with gusto.
Between and after bites, he told quite the life story.
Mr. Martin catapulted off airplanes in WWII. He had been a wrestler way back when wrestling was the premier sport. He wrestled at the Rainbow, when that North Side spot was a big venue.
Then he figured out most of the work was done by the wrestlers, but the money went to the promoters. And he quit.
He boxed. He had an early television show.
He ended up a writer. For a time he was a staple in the Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, as well as other magazines.
He wrote two books on the Lions Club. Back then, he had just finished the first, We Serve. The second one is Lions Clubs in the 21st Century.
I was comfortable enough to tell him that the Lions Club bought my first pairs of glasses. We were piss-poor and there was no way we were going to pay for glasses that topped $100, in a time when that would have been something like two paychecks for my dad.
Mr. Martin was like that. You felt comfortable opening up.
And there was a calmness.
I grew up in a deeply religious family, where some of my family members and friends had that kind of calmness.
But Mr. Martin didn’t casually drop Bible talk or religious references, so I didn’t know what to make of it.
Finally, I knew I had a good story on cassette tape, and felt comfortable enough to tell him that I felt like I was missing an important piece of the story.
That’s when he told me if I turned off the recorder, he would tell me.
That’s when I knew I not only had the technical side (an English degree and writing experience) but the gut instinct for writing and reporting.
Mr. Martin was Paul an alcoholic, one deep into the 12 steps, a mentor to many in AA. He was well beyond simply not drinking. He was steadfastly working on his spiritual life, and mediated regularly. And I don’t mean giving it five minutes of quiet time, I mean a good half hour and more of real meditation.
I wrote a story to be proud of, as befitted him, but that AA part stayed private.
We touched base from time to time. I sought his counsel when my life was spiraling out of control, broke and single or, more truly, alone.
And he came through in a no-nonsense way.
Then I moved on to writing for the Sun-Times, and lost contact with Mr. Martin.
O’Connell would occasionally drop a note, and a few times he mentioned that Mr. Martin had asked about me.
And I would love to tell you that I reached out to Mr. Martin. But I didn’t and that is a regret I will have to live with.
Normally, I am good about not letting things like that slip away. Maybe this writing is a way of reaching out, albeit late.
There are things Mr. Martin had to teach me, even late in life, and I missed that.
In lieu of flowers, send memorials to Riverside Twp. Lions Club, Hadley School for the Blind and St. Thomas Hospice.
Or better, drop a twenty in the jar the next time the Lions are raising money for eyeglasses.