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Inside a modest Falls service station, an extraordinary man

In a vintage neighborhood service station, you'd expect to find car parts, well-worn machinery and a cleanup sink with a vice grips functioning as a faucet.

You might not expect to meet an octogenarian who wears a small garnet stud in his ear, quotes the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is working his way through Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton and ushers up to four nights a week in local theaters.

Yet that's what you find in Martin's Service Station on 24th Street near Mackenna Avenue, where Don Martin -- just "Martin" to generations of customers in the neighborhood, as his father was before him -- still inspects and does some light work on vehicles.

Don Martin grew up in the house behind the service station and except for three years in the Marine Corps, has spent all of his life -- and he'll be 82 in January -- living within a mile of the station his father opened in 1931.

He used to do many kinds of of car repairs, as well as pumping gas, checking oil and washing windshields, but now shoulder ailments have limited his physical labor. But he still sees about 50 customers a week for inspections and advice on car repairs, he said.

Given different influences, this son of Jesse Martin, a Mennonite from Canada, and Estelle Wozniak, child of Polish immigrants, could have been a college history professor. But growing up in the service station, he and his older brother Bob absorbed knowledge about cars.

"Both my brother and I blended into the life of the garage," said Martin. "We would do whatever we could do to help, we pumped gas and washed windows."

The station served a flourishing, multi-cultural neighborhood, he recalled with a smile.

Don Martin welcomes customers and friends in the East Side service station established by his father, Jesse, in 1931. When he's not busy doing inspections and giving advice on repairs, Martin chats with friends or reads. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"Most people will look at a neighborhood as black and white, but it was a United Nations here," he said, reeling off the names of old-time Falls families and the bars, bakeries, butcher shops, shoe repair shop, hardware store, drugstore, candy store, restaurants, jewelry stores, liquor stores, clothing stores, junkyards, delis, Mom and Pop grocery stores and other businesses they operated.

"We had a tremendous amount of Polish, Jewish, Eastern European, African-American," he said. "It was an amazing neighborhood." Nobody locked their doors and all the children played together in the streets.

Those days are memorialized in the shop's ledgers, filled with customers' names and the amount they owed day to day.

"I'm in here somewhere," said former city administrator Bill Bradberry, flipping through a ledger. Bradberry grew up in the neighborhood and knew Martin and his father before him. He said, "Back in the day, the way it worked was you would pull up into Martin's gas station and say, 'I need $3 worth of gas,' which would pretty well fill your tank ..."

"Twenty-nine cents a gallon!' said Martin.

"And you'd say, 'I'll see you on payday,'" said Bradberry. "And he would bring out the book, put in your name, put in the amount, and then on payday you paid."

"Casual customers were in our day book, day by day, and if you were a regular customer you had your own page," said Martin. He finds a Bradberry who at one point owed more than $40, but Bill Bradberry quips, "Not a relative!"

This idyllic upbringing was shattered when Don Martin was 13. His mother died of cancer at age 35, leaving him, his older brother and younger sister, Barbara, in their father's care. "Having good parents is the most important thing in life," he mused.

His Aunt Rose and her family moved into the downstairs flat so Aunt Rose could care for his mother in her last days. Three apartments and three houses nearby were occupied by Martin relatives, many of whom gathered in Aunt Rose's home every Sunday, talking, laughing and eating. "There were 20 to 30 people on a Sunday," said Martin. "There were blue laws, and businesses were closed on Sundays, so families got together. I'm so happy I grew up during that time."

But higher education was never even considered. "With my dad in the Mennonite culture, education goes to eighth grade and that's it," said Martin. "Teachers in that culture are children who may have a year more of schooling. So with my dad, we never talked about school."

Martin graduated from Trott Vocational High School, then took his first and only step away from Niagara Falls when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1956.

Marine Corps tests revealed that Don had a high IQ, he said, which his brother was also told after military testing. Both were offered officer training, but both declined, he said. "Nobody ever promoted it."

From 1956 to 1959, Martin saw a bit of the world. And he didn't like everything he saw.

"In Parris Island, we're all treated equal," he said. But the larger culture had injustices that shocked the young man from the East Side of Niagara Falls.

In 1957, when he was in North Carolina for infantry training, he said, he and a friend from New Jersey had liberty together. They stopped at a nightclub in Jacksonville, N.C., where the two were separated because Martin's friend was black. "He had to go in the back door and upstairs and I had to go in the front," he said. "It shocked me, and it was the last time we went out together. Living in this neighborhood and being associated with everyone, it was shocking."

"I didn't realize the experience of segregation until then," Martin said to Bradberry. "Then I had an idea of what it was like for you and your family to travel down south, what conditions were like."

After his honorable discharge, Don Martin returned home and worked in the service station. He married Betty Lou Seavey in 1959 and they became the parents of one daughter and four sons, "all smarter than me," he said. They all got the college education he never had.

Martin was a certified carburetor mechanic, and could overhaul starters and alternators. The station was busy, and Don and Jesse Martin worked hard to support their families, but changes were coming.

When the price of gas hit the unheard-of dollar a gallon, said Martin, "our pumps were old, so they had to price it by the half gallon," because the machines wouldn't show three digits. "So it was 59 cents a half-gallon."

In 1987, a federal law required service stations to either replace old and potentially hazardous underground gas tanks or remove them, and replacing them would have cost $35,000, Martin said. The end of gas sales devastated his father, he said, who "after doing that his entire life, was depressed for about three months. He just sat in that chair, looking out the door. He was used to having people coming to him all the time, and now that had changed."

Jesse Martin lived to age 93 in the house next to the shop, with Don and his sister taking turns staying with him for the final three years of his life.

When he turned 50, Don Martin took an unusual step that changed his life: He started ushering at Artpark. He had fed his native intelligence with books -- a copy of Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton sits near his chair, and he has just finished re-reading David McCullough's biography of Harry S Truman. But ushering at Artpark exposed him to the arts.

"I started appreciating classical music when I started ushering at Artpark, and that was 31 years ago," he said. "I changed maybe because of the influence at Artpark; it was my introduction to ballet, to all kinds of dance, to opera, to everything. Maybe I was just changing at that time. I think we do change occasionally as people.

"My midlife crisis was to become a cultured person."

In 1995, Betty died of lung cancer, the same ailment that claimed four of her five sisters.

"I try to help people to stop smoking," he says. "I tell that story, about five of the six sisters dying. But I tried to get my wife to stop smoking, too, but it was small-cell Stage 4, and there was no treatment at that time.

"That shows you how hard smoking is for some people, it's an addiction."

The only sister left is Elsema Holody, who quit smoking when she was 28, and still stops in to see Don Martin in his station to catch up and reminisce about old times. Over the summer, the two traveled to Maine to visit family together.

He smiles when asked about his earring, a garnet, which is his January birthstone. The woman who cuts his hair decided he needed an earring, he said, and he went along. Holody has given him a couple of hoops for which she lost the mates, but he hasn't been bold enough to wear a hoop yet. Maybe in his 82nd year he will unleash his inner pirate. He laughs at the idea.

A customer comes in asking about an inspection, and arranges to come back in the morning. "Thanks, Martin!" he said.

"Everybody only knows the proprietor here as Martin," said Bradberry. "Nobody ever called him Don, it was just Martin, or Mr. Martin."

Over a vintage riveted kerosene tank, Martin has posted a world map dotted with colored pins marking the places he and his friends have traveled. An avid newspaper reader, he consults the map to understand geography and politics.

Martin uses a tire gauge to point out a spot on a world map he has posted on the wall of his service station. Pins mark places he and his friends and family have visited. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He grabs a tire gauge for a pointer and gestures toward Ireland and Britain. "I've been to Ireland, Scotland and northern England, we went across Hadrian's Wall. On the west side of England is the Lake District, and we visited the home of a very famous poet, William Wordsworth. He has a very famous poem that I love, 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.'"

That poem lyrically describes an idyllic childhood. While Martin's childhood memories include avoiding steaming industrial effluents while swimming with his pals in the Niagara River, he recalls it with joy all the same.

And its artifacts are all around him. The room is warmed by a 1957 Moore natural gas stove. "We used kerosene up until we got this stove," he said.

The cash register, which dates from 1952,  is no longer in use in the service station. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The cash register is the original from 1952, and one of Martin's five grandchildren has said she'd like it someday. It could go now, if not for the atmosphere it provides -- it's empty. And Martin doesn't carry a wallet, or more than a few dollars.

Martin closes the station in the mid-afternoon and heads home. He has a demanding schedule as a volunteer usher at 12 different theaters, up to four nights a week. He shows people to their seats at Artpark, Kleinhans Music Hall, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Irish Classical Theatre Company, MusicalFare, the Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College, 710 Main Theatre, the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild and several community theater venues in the area.

Don Martin's worlds -- the service station where he has worked for his entire life and the cultured world of Buffalo theater -- rarely intersect. If he has ever shown anyone from his neighborhood to a theater seat, they have never recognized the service station owner outside his usual habitat.

Just a few people he's met while ushering have visited his workplace, he said. One was a good friend, originally from Hungary, with whom Martin shared some CDs of Hungarian music when he was battling cancer.

The other, a salesman for a tool company who traveled all over the region, stopped in to say hello one day. Martin didn't ask, but thinks the man "kind of appreciated what I had here."

Another is Elizabeth Kauffman, who lives in Allentown and met Martin more than 20 years ago while ushering. "He's just a really, really super nice guy," she said. The two have taken many local bicycle trips through the years, and a few years back they took a several weeks-long bike and barge trip from Amsterdam to Belgium.

His service station "is amazing, isn't it?" she said. "There are things in there from his father's time. His kids are lovely, too; I've met them all and they are a very special family."

Kauffman has helped expanded Martin's life, inspiring the unassuming, gentle man to take part in a handful of demonstrations in Manhattan and in Washington, D.C. The first, in the mid-2000s, was against the war in Iraq. Others followed, including John Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010, against the Dakota Access Pipeline last year, and the Women's March in January.

"I had never been to a demonstration before," he said. "It's so different, standing in the street, and people blowing their horns and waving, it's like nothing I have ever experienced before."

Now an old hand at mass demonstrations, Martin talks about the challenges -- the long bus rides, the days spent standing, the crowds -- with excitement.

Although he has cut back and slowed down at work, Martin has never questioned whether to keep the service station open. The neighborhood needs him, and he needs his work, his friends and customers, he said. "It's a reason to get up in the morning."

He calls himself a GAGA person -- "go along to get along," he explains, although it would not be a surprise that he's a fan of Lady Gaga, either -- but Don Martin has a firmly settled philosophy.

Never stop learning, be open to new adventures, take people as they come, and, most of all, he said, "I believe in doing good and helping people."


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