We all need to be called some names
In her nearly 90 years on this Earth, Martha Zollinger has been called a lot of things. Street walker. Bag lady. Bookie. Ditch owner. And she’s proud of every one of them.
In fact, those names led to another that the spry and witty woman said she was humbled to have: Volunteer of the Year.
Zollinger earned those titles in Gallup, the New Mexico city of about 21,000 people she now calls home. But she is no stranger to Ironton and Ohio.
It was a personalized letter that looked to be painstakingly tapped out in blue ink on an old typewriter — one she jokingly says was on Noah’s Ark — that introduced me to this remarkable woman.
Zollinger and her late husband, John, lived on North Fourth Street in Ironton in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. They were both central Ohio natives who met at Miami University in Oxford before coming to the southern part of the state for work. John was the ad manager at The Tribune for about 10 years before they moved on, first to Louisiana, and then to become the owners of a small daily newspaper in New Mexico.
But that doesn’t mean Martha has forgotten about Ironton. She has many fond memories of her time here.
“Oh ever so much. It was great,” she said, rattling off names of many friends from town. “Those Ironton days were really fun.”
Martha remembers learning to play golf at the country club and was thankful that the floodgates only went up once in the time they lived here.
She talks warmly of walking through the streets of Ironton, watching the boats go up and down the Ohio River and the friendly neighbors who would get together and have block parties.
With a laugh, she recalls the jokes that came when her husband bought her a black Volkswagen, a car much smaller than what she called her husband’s “man’s car.”
“The neighbors said, ‘Look, John’s car had a baby,’” she said.
A few years after leaving Ironton, personal tragedy changed the direction of Martha’s life.
It was 1968. The Zollingers’ 15-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, was running high school track in Gallup when she collapsed and later died from what was called heart failure.
Martha was devastated.
For a time she sequestered herself inside their home as she struggled to deal with the grief.
But then everything changed.
A friend asked if she wanted to help do missionary work in Ailigandi, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the northern coast of Panama. Standing there in a dirt-floored shack with no electricity or gas — a facility that was considered a hospital — holding wounds open with two spoons, Martha knew she was sent to that island for a reason.
That was the start of a second lifetime of community service.
“I just feel that some good came out of losing our daughter. I was just so caught up in my own life working at the newspaper,” she said. “When you give to something else, it just feels like life is worth living.”
And live she does.
“I’m the best known streetwalker in town,” she says with a laugh, talking about her fundraising work for the local hospital and other community organizations.
In honor of their daughter, the Zollingers donated money to the University of New Mexico branch campus there in Gallup to build a new library. As the first volunteer on the project, local leaders said they were going to recognize her by naming a ditch in her honor. It was called Martha Z’s Arroyo.
“Anyone can have a school or a building named after them,” she said with a chuckle, adding that people also joked she was a “bookie” for helping to start a library. “I am the only person in the world who had a ditch named after them.”
To celebrate her birthday last year, the family organized a surprise party with one catch: No gifts for Martha.
Guests were asked to bring their checkbooks and donate to the University of New Mexico for a scholarship in Mary Ann’s name.
Martha couldn’t have been happier.
While some people would bristle at the notion of being called a “bag lady,” Martha wears the title like a badge of honor. She earned it too, spending countless hours volunteering to bag groceries at a local food pantry.
All that and more earned her the Volunteer of the Year honor by the Gallup Chamber of Commerce in 2011.
“You think, ‘I really didn’t do anything special,’” she said. “These were just everyday things to me.”
But those around town sure think the retiree is special.
The senior has her own parking spot at a local trading post. The police officers call her Miss Martha, urging her to always come to a complete stop so she doesn’t get hurt.
Standing out just seems to comes natural to Martha.
She is likely easy to spot whipping around town in her red Ford Mustang from her mahjong games and social functions, often wearing Indian jewelry and a flower in her hair.
“When you pass the half century mark, they notice your jewelry instead of your wrinkles,” she said.
On Oct. 19, Martha will turn 90. But the celebration will start a little earlier.
“I celebrate the whole month of October,” she said. “And I tell everyone that I am 110. When you are 110, you can do a lot of things and no one will say a word.”
Martha Zollinger is a living example that being called names isn’t always bad and that good can come from even the most heartbreaking tragedy.
“You have to do some things for other people,” she said matter-of-factly. “You can’t just live life for yourself.”
Those are words we can all strive to live by.
Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.