St. John Valley

Like him or not there is no denying John Martin’s political legacy

EAGLE LAKE, Maine — Hot off a five-hour drive from the Capitol Building in Augusta to his Eagle Lake home, Rep. John Martin hadn’t even unloaded his pick-up truck when his office phone began to ring.

The 80-year-old showed no signs of slowing down as he tied up his golden retriever in the backyard and sat for an interview in the book-littered office in the modest homestead where he was raised.

A cousin living just a few houses down dropped by with a jug of homemade maple syrup and a question about how to file for a Maine relief check. Constituents kept calling, about one every 15 minutes. 

Maine’s longest serving legislator, Martin was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1964 when he was 23. He has served a variety of posts since then, and will leave office in November due not to age, but term limits. His work to secure the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, distinct University of Maine campuses and an unsuccessful effort to establish the Dickey-Lincoln dam made him a household name along with politicians such as Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell. But Martin never lost his connection to the town of Eagle Lake.

Martin said state politics was low-paying but he managed as a political science teacher at University of Maine at Fort Kent, where he taught in the spring and summer semesters, and took off the winter semesters to be in Augusta.

His contribution to education as a teacher and lawmaker will be among Martin’s most lasting legacies. 

Martin’s students at UMFK have included Maine Senate President Troy Jackson and Aroostook County Administrator Ryan D. Pelletier. 

“He knows so much of the laws in Maine because he has had a hand in writing most of them,” Pelletier said, pointing out that Martin went to battle for UMFK when it was threatened with closure.

A young John Martin (far right) is pictured in his early days as a Northern Maine General board member. (Courtesy of Northern Maine General)

Martin ultimately had a hand in amending Maine law so that all seven University of Maine System campuses, including UMFK, are named by name and exist as part of state government. He also was a champion for the Community College System and higher education throughout Maine, Pelletier said.

“John certainly has left his legacy and whether people like him or not, no one can argue he has had a hand in just about every facet of Maine politics,” Pelletier said.

Martin also remains involved in local politics. He serves as treasurer of the Eagle Lake water and sewer district, is on the board of directors for Northern Maine General and serves as chairperson of the Eagle Lake Planning Board. 

He joined the Northern Maine General board in 1965, and is the longest serving board member for the healthcare organization, which offers a multitude of services from long-term care to subsidized apartments. 

“I can tell you that man doesn’t miss a meeting,” NMG CEO Michelle Raymond said. 

Raymond said Martin’s legislative knowledge and connections helped even in his early years as a board member when NMG reorganized from being a hospital to a nursing care facility. 

“He’s been a very big advocate for social services,” Raymond said.

Martin was one of nine siblings, but said he was pretty much raised as an only child, because his parents had him quite late in life. 

“I had three brothers serving in World War II who came back from the war and found this baby in the crib,” Martin said. 

He recalls walks to the cemetery with his mother to visit the grave of his oldest brother, who died as a toddler during the 1919 Influenza epidemic.

Martin grew up on the water, and said since college he has only ever missed canoeing the Allagash River one summer, when he was serving in Washington on the vice presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie. 

He was one of the lawmakers on a joint committee that recommended the creation of  the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which Washington later approved. 

“I think it’s a gem. It will be forever wild and available to people in Allagash,” Martin said.

Martin said he feels times are changing for the better, especially in Maine, when it comes to respect for the environment. 

“People are much more environmentally concerned; they’ve seen the consequences,” he said.  

As well as being the longest serving lawmaker in Maine history, Martin said he may just be in the running for another record. 

“Not many people have put on as many miles to Augusta,” he said. “It’s shorter now than when there was no Interstate.”

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson said Martin has always been accessible to his constituents, even those who openly voted against him or publicly besmirched his reputation. 

“People could say the most nasty things about him but if they went to him for help he was there,” Jackson said. 

Gov. Janet Mills said Martin is as in touch with his constituents as any legislator ever has been. 

“He was always willing to help a young person find a job or get into school, especially a person from the St. John Valley,” Mills said. “It’s like he invented constituent services.” 

Mills said she and Martin have conferred on hundreds of matters over the last 20 years.

“He’s a jack of all trades when it comes to public policy,” she said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect name for Northern Maine General’s chief executive officer. The correct name is Michelle Raymond.

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