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Retiree Profile – Don Martin, Ph.D.

08/03/2017 3:34 pm

Don Martin, Ph.D.

Don Martin cannot tell you why he was first swept away by ancient Latin and Greek, the classics and antiquity—only that “there was some bug in me all along that got me going in this direction.”

“It was always somewhere with me because even when I was very small, I was interested in languages,” Dr. Martin says. “I spent a lot of time by myself, and I would invent languages for the grasshoppers when I was walking across the field. I would go home and write out strange words.”

He pauses for a laugh and adds, “This sounds absolutely insane … but I was probably no more sane then than I am now.”

The Loves Park, Ill., native bought a book and started teaching himself Latin in high school, something a less brave soul might call crazy. But the way he explains it—that Harlem High School suspended its Latin program the year before he attended, only to continue it a year after he graduated in 1953—is merely matter-of-fact.

“Anybody can do it if they feel like it. It depends on what you want to do,” he posits. “And this is what I wanted to do, and so I did. Simple as that.”

Today, even after a 47-year-career with Rockford University, Dr. Martin is far from done with his work. Though he retired this year, he has taken on the intensive project of translating an anthology of Greek poetry by Angelos Sikelianos.

“I got into this like everything else— by accident. It seemed like a fun thing to do, so I got into it, and then I discovered that it was all work and no play,” he jokes before insisting again, “Everything happens by accident, you know.”

Prof. Martin had expected to teach high school Latin after earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, but he went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in classics from the University of Cincinnati. He met the woman who would become his wife in the program and also spent extended residencies in Greece. It was here that he was first hit with an urge to translate texts into English after picking up George Theotokas’ novel “Leonis.”

He came to Rockford in 1975 and spent nearly a decade as a cataloguer at the Howard Colman Library before joining the Department of Languages, Literature and Cultures as a professor of classical languages and civilization. Ask him to recall his favorite memories and what he will miss the most, and you will get the same answer.

“Oh, the students, always. I miss them already,” he says. “Not having my classes is probably going to be the toughest assignment as a retiree, but I’ll be all right.”

He identifies one friendship after another after another, speaking of past pupils’ blossoming careers and families as though they are his own children. Dozens of students have stayed in touch with him via email or even old-fashioned letters after leaving Rockford University. Prof. Martin prefers to write to them with pencil and paper, and has a box stuffed with letters from past and present pen pals.

“They all get very, very busy, and finally, the correspondence seems to dwindle,” he says with an understanding chuckle. “But that’s okay. That’s the normal process of things.”

Aside from the translation project that has his own home life humming along, Prof. Martin hopes to read as much as he can, keep company with Cleo the cat and enjoy operas with his wife, Sherrilyn, who is still on the faculty as a Latin teacher at Keith Country Day School in Rockford.

For an accomplished classicist who has learned multiple languages, helped expose the work of Greek authors to English speakers and touched countless lives in a nearly five-decade career in higher education, Prof. Martin is endlessly self-effacing—as though he is still the little boy creating insect dialects.

“I had a congenital interest in languages, even though I have no talent for the thing,” he says. “I’m not a ready speaker, even in English. I don’t have a good ear either … But I’ve always been interested in languages. I’ve always been fascinated.”

For that, Dr. Martin, we are grateful.