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Father Martin, national leader in alcoholism treatment, dies at age 84

The Rev. Joseph C. Martin, a recovering alcoholic and an international leader in the fight against alcoholism and substance abuse who was a co-founder of Father Martin’s Ashley, a Harford County treatment center, died early today of heart disease at his Havre de Grace home. He was 84.

Father Martin’s “Chalk Talk on Alcohol” and “No Laughing Matter” have become standard tools used by recovery centers, schools and employee assistance programs the world over.

“Father Martin is an icon in the treatment industry and was one of the first to describe alcoholism in layman’s terms as a disease,” said Mark Hushen, president and chief executive of Father Martin’s Ashley, located near Havre de Grace.

“He helped thousands and thousands directly and indirectly with his message all across the world,” he said.

Mike Gimbel, a substance-abuse expert who was Baltimore County drug czar for 23 years and now directs an anti-steroid program at St. Joseph Medical Center, is an old friend.

“Father Martin has done more to educate and treat those suffering from addiction than anyone in the past 50 years,” Mr. Gimbel said today.

Born in Baltimore, the son of a machinist who was a heavy drinker, Father Martin was raised in Hampden. He was a 1942 graduate of Loyola High School and attended Loyola College from 1942 until 1944.

He studied for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Roland Park from 1944 to 1948, when he was ordained a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice.

Father Martin began drinking while he held teaching positions at St. Joseph’s College in Mountain View, Calif., from 1948 to 1956, and later at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville from 1956 to 1959.

“I drank from the age of 24 to 34,” he told The Sun in a 1992 profile. “I was afraid to go near the altar to say Mass six days a week. I did go on Sunday, but shaking all the while.”

After his troublesome behavior came to the attention of superiors, Father Martin was confined to a psychiatric ward in California in 1956, and after his release, returned to drinking double martinis and shots of vodka from hidden bottles in his bathroom.

“It never occurred to me that perhaps there was something odd about a priest walking toward a garbage dump in the middle of the afternoon carrying two suitcases of clanking bottles,” he told The Sun in an interview last year.

Finally, the Archdiocese of Baltimore sent Father Martin to Guest House, a Michigan treatment center for the clergy, to get sober.

By the time he left Guest House, he had regained his sobriety and found what would become his life’s work.

He converted his notes based on Bill Wilson’s Alcoholics Anonymous famous 12-step program into a blackboard talk, which was done on an actual blackboard with chalk. During the 1960s, he began presenting it at AA meetings, rehab centers and private businesses.

In 1972, his “Chalk Talk” lecture was filmed by the Navy and later was picked up by the other armed forces where it was used as mandatory addiction training for service personnel.

Father Martin and his blackboard lecture were in demand all over the world, which gave rise to his crack: “Have chalk. Will travel.”

In 1964, he became acquainted with Lora Mae Abraham, a mother and a housewife, who was the daughter of a Baptist minister.

“I’ve been sober 45 years. Those years when I was suffering from alcoholism were years of disgrace and shame, and especially so because I was a woman,” said Mrs. Abraham.

One night in 1964, Mrs. Abraham joined other members from her AA meeting at the Johns Hopkins University to hear a lecture featuring Father Martin.

“When he walked out on stage and said, ‘Hello, I’m Joe Martin, and I’m an alcoholic,’ and that alcoholics are not bad people, they have an illness, I surrendered right there that night,” she said.

The two became close friends, and it was Mrs. Abraham who suggested in 1978 that Father Martin establish a center where alcoholics could come for treatment.

It took seven years of fundraising before they were able to acquire Oakington, the former estate of Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

The 22-bed facility opened in 1983 and was named Ashley for Mrs. Abraham’s father, the Rev. Arthur Ashley.

The Rev. Leonard A. Dahl, a Presbyterian clergyman, stepped down two years ago as president and CEO at Ashley.

“He also took me to my first AA meeting, and I recently celebrated 36 years of sobriety,” Mr. Dahl said of Father Martin. “He believed that alcoholism was his cross and hymn to carry, and he was never bitter about the disease.”

Father Martin, who liked to say, “Give me a blackboard, a piece of chalk and a bunch of drunks and I’m at home,” always greeted new arrivals with a hopeful welcome: “The nightmare is over.”

Father Martin also made sure that no one was turned away because of their inability to pay for treatment that can cost $20,800 for the 28-day program.

In the more than 30 years since it accepted its first patient, more than 30,000 people have been treated, including celebrities from the world of Hollywood, sports and politics.

While retiring from active management in 2003, Father Martin, who had celebrated 50 years of sobriety, continued lecturing patients until late last year.

Michael K. Deaver, former White House chief of staff during the Reagan administration, had been a patient and later served on Ashley’s board for a decade.

“When I came to Ashley, I had been with presidents, kings, popes and prime ministers, but Father Martin was the most powerful person I had ever met,” Mr. Deaver said. “You see, Father has the power to change people, to make them better, to make them whole again.”

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cathedral and Mulberry streets.

Father Martin is survived by a brother, Edward Martin of Lilburn, Ga.; two sisters, Frances Osborne and Dorothy Christopher, both of Baltimore; Mrs. Abraham and her husband, Tommy Abraham, with whom he lived for 30 years; and many nieces and nephews.

source: Baltimore Sun

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