A Life: Peter Bird Martin; ‘There was always laughter when he was around’

  • Peter Bird Martin, right, watches miners work in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of his Institute of Current World Affairs fellowship. Martin observed race relations from 1953-55, including the implementation of apartheid in South Africa. (Courtesy Institute of Current World Affairs) Courtesy Institute of Current World Affairs

  • Photographed on June 26, 2006, Peter Bird Martin is leaving his position as executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs in Hanover, N.H., but still plans to be active in world affairs and to travel. Behind him in his office is a portrait of Walter Rogers, who was the first director of the institute, in 1925. (Valley News - Travis Dove) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Travis Dove

  • As a journalist and later an executive for Time Inc., Peter Bird Martin met many celebrities, including championship heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

  • Lu and Peter Bird Martin visit Chile in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/27/2022 7:42:08 PM
Modified: 2/28/2022 10:45:10 AM

ORFORD — Peter Martin was always up for an adventure — big or small, work or leisure.

Martin found enjoyment in everything he did, whether on assignments as a journalist in foreign lands, driving through Europe in a Volkswagen with his family or just relaxing on the porch at his home overlooking the Connecticut River. And he seemed to do it all with an ever-present smile and a lot of laughter.

“He just loved life and loved doing things,” said his stepson, Whitney Sterling who lives in Germany. “When they visited us in Germany, everywhere he went he found things to enjoy.”

Martin died Nov. 22, 2021, at the age of 92 at Kendal at Hanover after a period of declining health.

While his journalism career took him to far corners of the globe and provided interesting and exciting experiences, Martin found equal pleasure in the simple things in life with a premium on having fun.

“Peter’s sense of fun was ever-present,” said his stepdaughter Mary Sterling. “People just remember what fun he had and his good humor. He had this great laugh.”

Sterling and others remembers Martin’s love of the Connecticut River in particular.

“He was proud of the dock he built and he loved to paddle up the Connecticut with my mom (Lu) and then float down with the flow,” Mary said. “He used to call it ‘cannoodleing” with mom.”

Mary’s husband, Fred, remembers “Peter’s spot” on his porch with a martini, gazing at the river and remarking on the effects of the changing light on the water.

Telling a good story, launching into song at the spur of the moment, singing with the Upper Valley Community Chorus or playing his baritone ukulele Martin embraced life at every turn.

“He would go anywhere and try anything,” said Mary, recalling a photo of Martin in the Khyber Pass in Pakistan.

His daughter Lucy remembers as a young teenager in the early 1970s her father had written a story on book about traveling through Europe on $5 a day.

“He wanted to see if it could be done with a family of four so he had a Volkswagen delivered to Belgium and we drove around Europe in this car,” Mary said. “We stayed at every cheap bed and breakfast there was.”

Even when his health declined, Martin remained interested in people and the world around him.

“His curiosity never waned,” said Lucy. “He was always interested in what was going on. He had a sort of child-like take on the world.”

“He was never a complainer. Even in poor health he would engage in story or song,” said Mary.

Martin was born in Philadelphia in 1929. Early on he decided journalism was his calling, following his father into the field. In his memoir, The Time of My Life, Martin recounts the early influences of a high school journalism teacher and a college professor, whose primary assignment to students was to read the newspaper every day that gave him the foundation for a career in journalism.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1951, Martin landed a job with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His investigative and lively reporting was noticed by the Walter Rogers, executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs, and Martin was named an Institute fellow for a two-year assignment in Africa from 1953-55 in Southern Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe.

After his return, Martin went to work for Time Inc., where he covered Latin America, was a senior editor at the magazine’s sections for medicine, law, science and performing arts and helped to launch People,Entertainment Weekly and Money Magazine.

In the late 1970s, the Institute that opened so many doors for Martin was floundering.

“He left Time to become director of a foundation that was about to fail,” said his stepson, Jim. “At the time there was one fellow in the field.”

Martin accepted an offer to return as its director in 1978 and with his characteristic optimism, indefatigable spirit and engaging personality Martin was the medicine the organization needed. But it may not have seemed like a wise move at the time.

“He left a good job for a lousy one,” said his wife, Lu. “But he built it into something everyone is excited about.”

Martin closed the Institute’s Park Avenue office, moved it briefly to his New York City apartment and later to Hanover. He located the ICWA in the 1770s Wheelock House, which was the original home of the founder of Dartmouth College, Eleazar Wheelock.

“It was important to Peter that the foundation had the home,” said Lu, who married Martin in 1980.

Martin breathed new life into the ICWA. He traveled extensively to raise money and enthusiastically promoted the Institute’s mission of mentoring young people interested in journalism.

“It is important to know how much he loved journalism and how much he loved helping young people,” said Lu.

During Martin’s 27-year tenure as the executive director of ICWA, he mentored 77 fellows. Those chosen were not always the best and the brightest from top schools.

“He wanted to give fellowships to people who didn’t have all the chances,” Lu said. “Find people who were curious and might become good journalists. That was an important part of Peter’s philosophy.”

Gregory Feifer, who currently heads the Institute, now located in Washington D.C., was one of the fellows during Martin’s tenure.

He calls Martin one of his first mentors and vividly remembers their first meeting Russia in 2000, where he was working as a journalist for an English newspaper and Martin came to interview him for a fellowship.

“He was instantly recognizable as he emerged from the gate,” Feifer said. “He was wearing his green Dartmouth blazer amid a sea of black jackets and dour faces and he was smiling.”

To Martin, fellows with the institute became like family and he made a commitment to develop lifelong relationships with each one, Feifer said.

“He was the life of the Institute and its mission of transforming the lives of fellows who would go on to be experts in international affairs and inform the American public,” Feifer said.

Martin’s gift of storytelling “brought what fellows were doing come alive with the trustees and others,” Feifer said.

Martin visited each fellow halfway through their two year assignment; sometimes Lu would join him.

“The fellows talk about it all the time as a high point of their lives,” she said.

In 1985 Martin started the South-North Service which sought to develop Third World journalists.

While it would seem that the Institute consumed all of Martin’s waking hours, he found plenty of time to enjoy his Orford home, an old farmhouse he bought from a Dartmouth professor.

His son Bill, who edited his Martin’s memoirs, said his father worked for a couple of summers at a resort in Lake Placid, N.Y., during World War II as a teen and that is where he got his handyman skills to work on the old farmhouses where the family lived in Westchester County, N.Y. and later in Orford.

“He learned how to fix thing and do plumbing and carpentry,” Bill said. “He was self-taught and he made it look easy. He was quite a craftsman.

“Whatever he did, he pushed himself to do the best he could.”

Martin’s stepson, Jim, became an actor in New York City after graduating from Dartmouth where he was in theater. Sterling said in Martin he had an ardent supporter who often saw him perform.

“Since they lived in the area they got to see all my shows (at Dartmouth). He got a firsthand look at my development as an actor and he was an incredible supporter of mine,” Jim said.

Later the Martins traveled to see Jim perform.

“It was such a wonderful thing to have a former theater editor of Time Magazine sing your praises,” he said.

Jim remembers sharing a drink in a Hanover tavern with Martin as he was preparing to leave for New York City.

“ ‘Well, Jim,’ he said. ‘You are going off to New York to be an actor and that is great but what about a Plan B.’ ”

In reply, Jim said he didn’t have a plan B but if acting did not work out (which it did for 20 years) then he would be successful at something else.

“He clinked my glass and said ‘sounds good enough for me.’ I really miss his honesty. He was a straight shooter. That was something I treasured and respected.”

Singing was another of Martin’s love.

“He had an endless supply of songs,” said his daughter Lucy. “Every lyric for every song he heard was in his head and would pop out at an appropriate moment.”

Stephen Flanders sang with Martin in what started as the Dartmouth Alumni Glee Club in 1994 but later became the University Chorus of the Upper Valley. The Chorus sang at annual spring concerts but also at assisted-living facilities and other venues.

“Peter came across as convivial and full of good humor, who made you feel comfortable,” Flanders said.

As his health deteriorated, Martin remained “excited about life,” said stepson Jim. “He appreciated how precious life was and how short it was.”

Martin never lost his gift for storytelling.

“All you had to do was remind him of a time or a person and bang, you would have a great story,” said stepdaughter Mary.

And with those stories came his trademark laugh.

“There was always laughter when he was around,” said Lucy.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com

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