By Dave Scheiber
It's a good thing that Catherine Martin ignored the advice of her middle school guidance office as a young Ohio teenager in the mid-1960s.
Granted, her superiors at the small, parochial institution in Cincinnati believed that they were acting in her best interests when they placed her on a non-college track. "At the time, I didn't have the type of testing scores they were looking for," she recalls, "so they pre-determined by my ninth-grade year that I would be better off working in an office or doing clerical work after high school. All I could think was, 'If I can't go to college, how am I going to be a teacher?' "
Of course, had Martin listened to the misguided recommendation, she never would have one day earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of South Florida, enjoyed a rewarding career as a physical therapist working with and teaching children with motor-skill impairments and cognitive challenges - or found a special way to thank the university that opened the door to her future.
Martin, now retired and living with husband in Clemson, S.C., recently made an estate gift through a modest life insurance policy she took out in her early 20s at USF. One day, upon her passing, it will become a welcomed donation to the College of Education - a fitting destination considering that it was a teacher who urged Martin to pursue her dreams, regardless of how school officials had assessed her.
"She was my homeroom teacher, Ms. Judy Kipp, and she told me that if I wanted to become a teacher, I shouldn't let anything get in my way," Martin says. "Her encouragement made a big difference, because I was thinking I just wasn't cut out to be a college student and was feeling really beaten down."
The boost Ms. Kipp provided couldn't have come at a better time, because life at home for Martin - the oldest of seven children - held its own challenges. Her parents were in the midst of a divorce, and her mother eventually moved with her children to the Tampa Bay area to make a new start. Martin enrolled in Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota, and it wasn't long before she was drawn to helping children with special needs.
"Back in the 1960s, there weren't public laws that mandated that everyone is entitled to public schooling," she says. "Many of these kids in need would just be at home, getting no help at all. So I got together with some other students and we'd spend Saturday mornings at the school, reading to these children who were mentally challenged. It was just something I volunteered to do, because it felt like we were making a difference."
Martin attended what was then St. Petersburg Junior College, finishing her A.A. degree at Hillsborough Community College and enrolling at USF as a junior. As a senior, she did an internship at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in her field of interest, therapeutic recreation. "I became a really good student," she recalls. "I knew I was doing this all on my own and got really serious about my commitment." After graduating with a degree from the College of Education in the area of professional physical education, Martin saved money for graduate school by working as a substitute teacher in Sarasota and a home health worker.
Soon, Martin applied for admittance in USF's graduate program in adaptive physical education and was accepted - the start of a career helping people with special needs gain confidence and greater physical control of their bodies. "It was like being a Special Olympics coach, working with a different kind of athlete," she explains.
After earning her M.A., Martin worked for several years as an educator with United Cerebral Palsy, assessing and helping newborns to 3-year-olds. And soon enough, she was caring for her own special needs child - a daughter with developmental delays she and her husband adopted.
Martin shifted her focus to her family and away from her career, though she continued to volunteer as a recreational therapist and later worked as a water fitness instructor.
Meanwhile, she remained active with USF, joining the Alumni Association as a lifetime member. That led to a conversation with a former Bulls classmate from the 1970s, Ron Sherman, then USF's long-serving director of development. "Ron asked me if I ever considered gift planning," she says. "I really never had, because I never imagined someone in my financial situation being able to make an impact. I thought gift-planning was for people who make huge donations - hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars."
But through conversations with Sherman and Marion Yongue, USF's director of development for Gift Planning, she learned how the life insurance policy she'd taken out as a student could name USF as a beneficiary - and one day make a big difference. She expressed a desire for her gift to benefit, appropriately, the field of special education. Later, she met with the College of Education's Dean, Dr. Vasti Torres, who shared with Martin how meaningful the gift was and what it would do for students.
"After that, my little contribution didn't feel so small," she says. "I thought of all the financial needs I had as a student at USF, and I know that my gift will enable students to buy books, pay for tuition and make it through college."
It's a comforting thought for a woman once told she wouldn't make it to college. Instead, she made it there and then some, enriched by helping those who need it the most.