Update: Former Columbus Mayor Frank Martin dies at 73

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 12, 2012 

In 1990, as Columbus was struggling with aging infrastructure and a community-wide inferiority complex, business and civic leaders were looking for a new direction — and a different kind of mayor.

To replace James Jernigan, they turned to Frank K. Martin, a former Columbus High football center and successful criminal defense attorney whom people called Butch.

Using his bulldog-like approach, Butch Martin spearheaded the passage of a 1-percent sales tax that led to a new civic center, riverwalk and public safety building — as well as a new attitude that enabled Columbus to successfully compete to host the 1996 Olympic softball competition.

“He probably did more for Columbus than any other mayor this city ever had,” former police chief and mayor Jim Wetherington said.

Martin, 73, died Sunday morning at St. Francis Hospital from complications due to pancreatic cancer, which he’d been fighting for more than a year.

“He was a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said his law partner and son, John Martin. “To his family, he was Dad. To the community, he was Lawyer Martin, a successful attorney. To another segment of the community, he was Mayor Martin, a man who accomplished a great deal with the help of many others. He was multi-talented and this community knew him on a lot of levels.”

Martin and prominent Augusta attorney Wyck Knox went back 50 years to their days at the University of Georgia, where they were law school roommates. A combination of skills is what made Martin unique, Knox said.

“He was a great lawyer, but he had an insight into human nature that was almost uncanny,” Knox said. “And he had the courage to stand up for what he believed in and say what he thought to be the truth.”

The mayor

Retired CB&T President Sam Wellborn, a few years younger than Martin, was a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother at Georgia, where Martin completed his undergraduate and law degrees.

Wellborn was one of the friends who talked Martin out of the courtroom and into a run for mayor.

“He really loved Columbus,” Wellborn said. “I believe at the time he felt he could make a difference in this community — and he did.”

It took more than two years into his four-year term before Martin made that difference. In 1993, he proposed a 1 percent sales tax that literally altered the Columbus landscape.

In March of 1993, Columbus citizens overwhelmingly passed that 1 percent sales tax to fund more than $65 million in sewer work that produced the Chattahoochee Riverwalk, more than $26 million for a new civic center, more than $15 million for a new public safety center and $35 million for parks and recreation and new sidewalks.

Martin, who had fought unsuccessfully earlier in his term to lift the city’s controversial residential property tax freeze which still stands today, was the architect and primary salesman for the sales tax vote.

“As far as my political career, I’ve never been a politician and don’t intend to be one,” he said at the time. “I wanted to join city council and community leaders and find an opportunity to present to the people a way to make a dramatic step forward in the future.”

After the taxes passed, Ledger-Enquirer editorial page editor Billy Winn declared Martin had put his stamp on the city.

“Not since the mayoralty of L.H. Chappell at the turn of the century has such an ambitious program of civic construction been undertaken here,” Winn wrote.

The editorial concluded: “The people who elected Frank Martin mayor said they wanted change. Well, they’re getting it.” And the change was just starting.

Five months after winning the sales tax vote, Martin hit a home run, helping to lure the Olympic softball venue to Columbus. The city used a portion of the sales tax revenue to promise a new eight-field softball complex and major makeover of Golden Park to win the confidence of the Atlanta Olympic organizers. Even in the glow of that win, Martin didn’t take credit for the success.

“The mayor either gets the blame or credit for everything,” Martin said at the time. “Today’s announcement was the combination of efforts of so many people.”

Columbus criminal defense attorney Richard Hagler said he admired the way Martin stepped up to run for mayor, walking away from a successful law practice.

“Butch had the communication skills and courage that transferred well into the mayor’s office,” Hagler said.

The attorney

Before and after he was a successful mayor, Martin was a prosecutor-turned-formidable criminal defense attorney.

As Columbus trial lawyer Ben Philips was beginning his practice, Martin offered him two bits of advice.

“One, he said a scared man can’t win,” Philips remembered Sunday. “Two, he said a worried man couldn’t work.”

Few knew Martin better than Knox, his old law school roommate.

“That sounds just like him,” Knox said of the advice to Philips.

Philips said Martin’s personality came through in his legal practice.

“He was not scared of anything,” Philips said. “And he feared no type of case.”

He represented those who were accused of sex offenses and murder. And he did it well.

In 1985, Martin was the original attorney for Michael Curry, whom police suspected of killing his pregnant wife and two children with a bush ax.

Wetherington was the police chief and said that despite being on opposite sides, he and Martin never had a cross word.

“He had a job to do, and he did it well,” Wetherington said of Martin’s defense work.

It took more than 25 years for Curry to be charged and convicted of the murders, and by that time Martin was no longer Curry’s attorney. Despite the tricky nature of his job, Philips said Martin was respected.

“I don’t know anyone who disrespected him,” Philips said. “He had many friends and they all loved him. Taking the kinds of cases he took, he had some enemies. And, they might not have liked him, but they respected him.”

Which was quite a feat, Hagler said.

“For people who do not understand our role, that’s not easy,” Hagler said.

While others close to Martin had trouble answering the question about how a successful attorney could put his legal career on ice to run for mayor of his hometown, Knox understood.

“Butch had a vision for Columbus,” Knox said. “He saw a need for leadership. It was that simple.”

Since he left the mayor’s office in 1994, Martin has been in private practice with his son, John, at The Martin Firm.

Compromise, not conflict

Martin, a lifelong Democrat, was remembered as one who included a wide variety of people and opinions in his decision-making process.

When Martin ran for mayor, he approached five businesswomen about key roles in his campaign. One of those was Melissa Thomas, who owned a car dealership at the time.

“He had nothing to gain,” Thomas said of Martin’s mayoral run. “He had a strong law practice, but he had a great vision. He brought all kinds of people together.”

Martin’s civic philosophy could best be summed up by a speech he gave in August 1993 at a mayor’s prayer breakfast. The NAACP and the Muscogee County School Board were involved in a bitter controversy that threatened to divide the community. Though the matter was not in his hands, Martin called for a resolution.

“Social problems are resolved by compromise, not by conflict,” Martin said at the time. “Compromise is the better way, the higher way and follows the higher order.”

When Wetherington became mayor and needed someone to engineer a compromise to end another civic crisis, he turned to Martin. A civil lawsuit had been filed against the city by the family of Kenneth Walker, a black man shot to death by a white Muscogee County sheriff’s deputy during what was believed to be a drug stop, though no drugs were found. Martin stepped forward.

“We needed some private money to go with the city funds to settle this, and he led the way,” Wetherington said. “He went to the business community and helped raise the money that went to an education fund for Kenneth Walker’s daughter.”

Martin’s influence continued to the current mayor, Teresa Tomlinson.

“When I was first running for office, I sought his counsel, and after taking office I asked his advice on several issues,” she said. “We talked regularly.”

Martin’s friends knew the illness was taking a toll.

“You could tell he was struggling,” Wetherington said.

Philips said he never heard Martin complain.

“It was tough watching Butch go down,” Philips said. “You know, he just wouldn’t quit working.”

Despite the illness, Martin was in his Corporate Center office as recently as last Thursday working.

Martin was also an author, penning “Sowega,” a fictional account of a 1968 civil rights murder trial in Southwest Georgia.

Though funeral arrangements are incomplete, the service will likely be Wednesday at St. Paul United Methodist Church, John Martin said. McMullen Funeral Home will be handing the arrangements.

Martin is survived by his wife, Helen; three children, Frank Martin Jr. of Madrid, Spain; John Martin of Columbus; and Catherine Lee Martin of Columbus. He has one grandson, John Tally Martin.

Knox, the Augusta attorney, said Martin’s life brings to mind a scene from the movie “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“Do you remember Big Daddy in that movie?” Knox asked.

In the famous scene, Big Daddy (Burl Ives) lectures his son, Brick (Paul Newman), on the grind of constantly facing untruthfulness and hypocrisy in others.

“Mendacity!” he growls, “Look at all the lies I got to put up with.”

“Butch could smell mendacity immediately,” Knox said. “And he had a way of exposing it.”

Staff writer Michael Owen contributed to this report.

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