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Rev. Joseph Charles Martin, S.S.

Born: October 12, 1924

Ordained: May 22, 1948

Died: March 9, 2009

Rev. Joseph C. Martin Is Dead at 84; Used Fight With Alcohol to Aid Others

The Rev. Joseph C. Martin, whose battle with alcoholism inspired him to become a national leader in the fight against the disease by speaking, writing books, making videos and starting a treatment center, died March 9 at his home in Havre de Grace, Md. He was 84.

The probable cause of death was heart failure, said Rosemary Ostmann, a spokeswoman for Ashley, the highly rated treatment center Father Martin started near Havre de Grace. The center, sometimes called “the Betty Ford Clinic of the East,” says it has helped more than 40,000 people, including several celebrities.

Father Martin first became widely known through a talk he gave on the 12 steps of recovery propounded by Alcoholics Anonymous. He sometimes began with a preface similar to the one every alcoholic uses to address meetings of the organization, changing it to give his full name: “My name is Joe Martin, and I’m an alcoholic.”

With no preaching or moralizing, he spoke plainly of alcoholism as a sickness, not an evil. He used a blackboard and chalk, and in 1972, the Navy filmed the speech to use for mandatory addiction training, titling the movie “The Blackboard Talk.” The speech came to be known as “the chalk talk,” and subsequent videos of it and more than 40 more talks that Father Martin made were used in other branches of the military and throughout the federal government as well as in hospitals, corporations and treatment centers around the world. He wrote three books.

“We alcoholics drink because we can’t not drink,” Father Martin declared in his many talks. His motto: “Have chalk, will travel.” Betty Ford wrote to thank him for the video, which she saw while she was in treatment.

One person who said her life had been changed by Father Martin was Lora Mae Abraham, a housewife from Havre de Grace, whose drinking had spun out of control in 1964. She went to Baltimore to hear Gov. Harold Hughes of Iowa, an alcoholic who often spoke to other alcoholics about his own recovery.

When Mr. Hughes did not arrive, Mrs. Abraham saw that a Catholic priest — Father Martin, as she learned later — was about to speak instead. She stayed to hear his message.

“He removed the shame from me,” she said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 2008. “It changed my life forever on.”

Father Martin became such close friends with Mrs. Abraham and her family that he eventually moved in with them, staying for more than 38 years. He became inactive as a priest and took a job with Maryland’s alcoholism agency as an educator. He came to regard Mrs. Abraham and her husband, Tommy, and son, Alex, as family.

In addition to them, he is survived by his brother, Edward, of Lilburn, Ga.; and two sisters, Frances Osborne and Dorothy Christopher, both of Baltimore.

In 1978, Mrs. Abraham told Father Martin she feared that his accomplishments would die with him. She suggested that they open a treatment center. It took seven years to raise enough money to open Ashley, which is named for Mrs. Abraham’s father, the Rev. Arthur Ashley, and is on the former estate of Millard Tydings, a United States senator from Maryland. It now has 85 beds.

Joseph Charles Martin was born on Oct. 12, 1924, in Baltimore. His father habitually got drunk on Friday, payday. Three of the four sons developed drinking problems, The Sun reported.

At Loyola High School in Baltimore, Father Martin was valedictorian and was voted best debater, best actor and class member with the best smile. He attended Loyola College in Maryland, then studied for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He was ordained as a priest in 1948 and became a priest of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, whose chief mission is to educate seminarians.

He then taught in the order’s seminaries in California and Maryland and discovered he had a taste for gin. In 1958, his drinking prompted his superiors to send him to Guest House, a Michigan treatment center for the clergy, where his recovery began.

Father Martin often used humor in discussing alcoholism. He told of a police officer who saw a drunk with a penguin and told the drunk to take the penguin to the zoo, where it belonged. The next day, the officer saw the same drunk with the same penguin and demanded to know why the drunk had not taken the bird to the zoo.

“I did,” the drunk replied. “He loved it. Today, we’re going to the library.”

But Father Martin’s best-remembered words were probably his customary welcome to each troubled patient at his treatment center: “The nightmare is over.”

Source: The New York Times, Douglas Martin, 3/15/2009