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Coroner: Ex-Winthrop board chair, husband killed in murder-suicide

By Jonathan McFadden and Anna Douglas
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com, adouglas@heraldonline.com
Mary Jean Martin
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Mary Jean Martin

ROCK HILL A former chairwoman of the Winthrop University Board of Trustees, remembered as a quiet yet strong leader, died Monday, investigators say, after her husband shot her and then himself at their Rock Hill home.

Mary Jean Martin, 81, and James Martin, 91, were pronounced dead at about 8:30 a.m. at their home in the Huntington Place neighborhood off Herlong Avenue, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said.

Gast called the deaths a murder-suicide. On Tuesday, autopsies confirmed both died as a result of gunshot wounds, she said.

Police were called to the Martin house at about 8 a.m. after a caregiver found the couple, said Executive Officer Mark Bollinger, spokesman for the Rock Hill Police Department. The door to the house at 1662 Huntcliff Drive was locked, he said, and police don’t believe anyone else was involved in the shootings.

James Martin left behind a note telling whoever found the couple to call certain family members, Gast said. The note was not addressed to a specific person.

Investigators plan to submit forensic evidence to the State Law Enforcement Division, Bollinger said.

Both James and Mary Martin had been in failing health. Mary Martin suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, Gast said.

‘Strong, quiet leader’

Mary Martin was first elected as the Alumni Association representative to Winthrop’s Board of Trustees in 1994. In addition to three years as chairwoman, she served as secretary, vice chairwoman and finance committee chairwoman.

Kathy Bigham, a Winthrop trustee since 2003 and the board’s current chairwoman, remembered Martin as a “strong, quiet” leader who “led by example.”

“I truly came to admire and respect her,” she said. “She was a very loyal alum of Winthrop, and very proud of the university – of where it was and what it meant to our Rock Hill community.”

The Martins, who had been married 14 years, were loyal customers at Thursdays Too, the restaurant Bigham and her husband, Larry Bigham, owned for years. Though Bigham did not know James Martin well, she said he often attended university events alongside his wife.

Both were faithful members of St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Rock Hill, Bigham said.

When Martin retired from the Board of Trustees in 2006, the board approved a meritorious resolution recognizing her service.

That same year she wrote an editorial in The Herald decrying then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s claim that South Carolina lagged behind in education while he advocated spending cuts in higher education.

“As a university trustee, I welcome opportunities to explain to anyone that tuition is higher now than in the past because the state has reduced its level of support to institutions to the level of a decade ago,” she wrote. “What I have difficulty explaining is why our state’s governor wants to continue such cuts at an important time in our state... .”

That fit in well with how Winthrop trustee Karl Folkens remembers Martin.

“She was a tireless advocate for Winthrop, willing to shake up those who needed shaking up for the good of the university,” he said. “Her many contributions to Winthrop will last generations.”

Martin served in many capacities at Winthrop, at her church and in the Rock Hill community.

She served as a principal in York schools and an assistant superintendent at a school district in Georgia. In 1996, the Winthrop College of Education honored her with an “Award of Excellence” for school improvement in the district.

She was a Sunday school teacher at her church, a former president of the Rock Hill Music Club and had been invited to participate in a higher education roundtable seminar at Oxford University in England.

At Winthrop, she was a member of the Eagle Club, the university’s athletic booster organization, and a member of Friends of Dacus Library.

“She was a dear friend to the Winthrop University Alumni Association,” said Debbie Garrick, associate vice president for university development and alumni relations at Winthrop.

An “educator for life,” Martin was “a very influential leader and a mentor to many people,” Garrick said. “We will miss her smiling face at our alumni activities.”

‘Absolutely a team’

Bettye Rawls was friends with Mary Martin since the 1950s and a fellow member of the Rock Hill Music Club. She said Martin had been looking forward to attending a performance Thursday at the Community Performance Center in downtown Rock Hill.

Rawls said she last spoke to Martin on Sunday at church, where Martin once led her Sunday school class in singing hymns until she gave up those duties when her memory began to fail.

Martin was a contralto and studied the piano. As a college student at Winthrop, she took classes under Virgil Fox, a world-renowned virtuoso who played the inaugural concert on the organ in Winthrop’s Byrnes Auditorium in 1955.

“She was very successful in everything she did,” Rawls said. “She was a skilled educator, a born leader and a credit to women.”

Brien Lewis, president of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., was secretary of Winthrop’s Board of Trustees when Mary Martin was chairwoman. She was delighted, he said, to be elected chairwoman the same year she celebrated her 50th class reunion.

She and members of her Winthrop graduating class were dubbed the “Golden Girls,” he said.

“She was very clear-eyed about Winthrop’s trajectory,” having been involved in planning stages for many newer university facilities, such as the West Center recreational facility and the DiGiorgio Campus Center, Lewis said.

While James Martin had no direct connection to Winthrop aside from his wife, Lewis recalls seeing the “good, solid couple” at several university functions.

“They were absolutely a team,” he said. “Anything she was doing, he was right behind her.”

The Martins met about 15 years ago when a mutual friend introduced them, Rawls said. Over the years, the “very intelligent” James Martin dealt with limited mobility and had lost the ability to work on a computer.

Though she suffered from Alzheimer’s, Mary Martin was still able to participate in social events and take care of her home, Rawls said. In the spring, though, she hired a caregiver to help clean the house and cook dinner.

“She still always looked nice and well-groomed,” Rawls said. “She had dealt with (Alzheimer’s) quite well. You wouldn’t have known” she had it.

Former Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio called Martin “a very dear lady” who “represented and served Winthrop with distinction and grace in so many ways.”

“I will always remember her twinkling smile as she recounted stories from the travels she and Jim enjoyed when they were in good health,” he said, “as well as the warmth and sense of purpose she brought to alumni events and to her official duties during her time with the Board of Trustees.

“Her quiet ways made her a little uncomfortable personally when in the spotlight, but she was willing to endure that for Winthrop, and for education in general. That especially endeared her to us all.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082 Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068
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