Book celebrates 'The Martin Years'
Friends and admirers of Roy Martin were on hand last fall to celebrate the publication of a biography of the former Norfolk mayor and to kick off an ambitious local history project.
The book, "The Martin Years: Norfolk Will Always Remember Roy Martin," was the inaugural effort of the Hampton Roads Biography Project. Jim Oliver, former Norfolk city manager and chairman of the biography project committee, said the project seeks to record the city's history in the latter half of the 20th century by looking at the influential community leaders who helped shape that history.
"I was once told that storytelling is a sign of the health of a family or an organization," Oliver said. "I think it applies to a community, too. And I think this project is about storytelling and about trying to understand and cherish our connectedness as a people."
The committee chose to begin the project with a look at the life of Martin, mayor of Norfolk from 1962 to 1974 and a member of the Norfolk council for three decades. Martin helped build the foundation for much of what is good in Norfolk today, Oliver said. He praised Martin as a model leader of enormous integrity who was honest, bright, a "great" decision-maker, and who "really wanted to make things happen for his home town."
To measure the success of its first biography, the committee turned to another native son, former congressman William Whitehurst.
"It's not only a review of Roy Martin's public service but the post-World War II years when Norfolk experienced its most dynamic growth," Whitehurst said. "I think that the joy in this book is to be found in the nostalgia that it creates – not just for Roy's stewardship as mayor but of the other men and women who were in and out of the limelight over those years."
As for Martin himself, Whitehurst said the book accurately depicts the sacrifices of public service as well as the difficulties and sometimes harsh criticism Martin encountered.
"Roy had a profitable business that certainly would have been more so if he had not had to spend so much time at city hall," Whitehurst said. "Moreover, few of us would have taken the grief that Roy suffered at the hands of firebrands at council meetings every Tuesday afternoon. No amount of money could compensate for the barbs hurled at the mayor."
Among the difficult issues Martin had to confront was integration. Martin stood alone on council in opposing a motion to close the city's public schools as a way to avoid integration.
"The council vote was 6 to 1. I never had a vote like that in my 18 years on Capitol Hill," Whitehurst said. "I had some tough ones, but I never had to stand up to odds like those."
"That speaks volumes about the character of the man," he continued.
"Norfolk has seen many politicians who have voted while wetting their fingers and holding them to the wind. Not Roy Martin, and that's what comes through in Amy Waters Yarsinske's profile of him. His bluntness, as she often notes in quoting his fellow council colleagues or others who dealt with him, quickly ruffled feathers. But no one ever had any doubts on where he stood.
"This steadfastness helped make his reputation as a strong mayor and it did something else: It served the best interest of the city, for it meant that Norfolk had a leader who would fight for it and labor to advance its interests . . . . Every mayor who has followed in his footsteps has built on his legacy."
"I'm a native of this city as were my father and grandfather before me. Like Roy I'm in the autumn of my life and can look back to a city in my youth that would now appear unrecognizable – a dirty seaport town with little to offer in art and culture, its appearance soiled by slums and saloons, an dembarrassment of vice, and so loathed by sailors who trained nearby that they had a nickname too sordid for me to repeat it to you.
"Two generations ago Norfolk began to shed that image," Whitehurst said. "Roy Martin was not responsible for all the changes that have occurred, but they would certainly not have matured as they did without his leadership. The catalog of progess is too long to recite here, but you only have to look around you, beginning right in this museum, to appreciate the vision and the efforts of Roy and others in this city who have made of it what it is today."
Martin took to the stage following Whitehurst to praise the committee and the Norfolk Historical Society for the biography project. "So often our history is lost," he said.
Martin said he enjoyed his public service because it gave him the opportunity to meet so many people. Elected mayor six times, Martin said, "It really was a wonderful experience."
Martin was quick to share credit for his accomplishments with his colleagues.
"I did not have a chance to review the book ahead of time," Martin said, "but if I could change one thing it would be to change the book's subtitle to read, 'Norfolk Will Always Remember Roy's Team,' because it was a team effort."
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