Remembering Dr. Martin’s Anti-Apartheid Activism


Walter Martin2
Several people emailed me about Monday’s article in the Waterloo Record featuring the journey of Dr. Walter Martin, recently deceased emeritus professor of English at UWaterloo, from South Africa to Canada. But only one person wrote to share a story which involved his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor (MF35 to the initiated, a classic apparently) and an invitation to tea. It always amuses me that, no matter where I go, a remarkable number of my departmental colleagues own tractors. Read on for more, including an account of Dr. Martin’s war service, cricketing, and conservation.–JLH

“Lifetimes: Local prof railed against Apartheid”
By Valerie Hill

The driveway to Walter Martin’s farm promises that the reveal will be just around that next set of trees. But then there are more trees and more trees and finally a huge house, hidden behind trees.

This apparently was Walter’s great obsession, planting 15,000 trees on land that had been devoid of such wonders until 1980 when he purchased the property with his wife and went to work creating a 69-acre oasis.

Just minutes down the road is Waterloo, a city where the South African-born academic found peace from the strife of his homeland and a unique opportunity to be part of something new and exciting.

It was 1962, the University of Waterloo was only a couple of years old and there wasn’t much more than a few scattered buildings in a field. Walter was one of a handful of young professors hired for the university’s English department, a wonderful opportunity for a young professor eager to make his mark.

It would seem that this is the interesting part of Walter’s story, but in fact it is Walter’s history that is as titillating as a good novel.

Walter was born one of three in Durban, South Africa, a resource rich country that had been colonized by both the Dutch and the British. In 1948 Apartheid was put into law, a system of extreme racial discrimination. Walter’s father, a soldier and a teacher, railed against the racist policies particularly relating to education by setting up a school.

Young Walter, a very capable athlete finished his first year in university but then the Second World War scuttled his plans. He left school to join the Durban Light Infantry, along with his brother and father.

Although he never really saw any action after being posted to North Africa, that didn’t mean Walter’s war service was without incident.

His brother was discharged due to health but his father was with him when their detachment was captured in 1942 and sent to a POW camp in Italy. Life in the camp was, well, interesting. There was of course the typical deprivation of a prison camp, the terrible and infrequent meals and the blessed welcome of Red Cross packages. But more importantly, the camp happened to be filled with men from educated classes, lawyers, doctors and academics and given they didn’t have much else to do other than play bridge, they used their knowledge to form a bit of a mini-university.

The men took turns delivering lectures in their field of expertise and it was so successful, many left after the war with an enhanced if not official, education. For Walter this exposure to deep thinking and new ideas was a game changer.

Walter’s daughter, Mary Martin said “Dad said it was a huge turning point. Because he was a huge sportsman, he probably would have become a cricketer.”

Life changed abruptly in camp when the war neared its end and Italy capitulated in 1943. The camp’s guards abandoned their posts and the Germans, bent on occupying Italy, were on their way. Walter saw an opportunity to make an escape.

“Apparently it was Dad who said ‘let’s go,'” said Mary. “Five men went. His father stayed in the POW camp.”

Over the weeks the escapees trudged south, over mountains and through villages, assisted by peasants who had precious little themselves. Their flight to freedom, however, was short lived. Not long after arriving in another Italian town they were captured and sent to a camp in Germany.

By then that country had been decimated by war and could barely feed its own population never mind a camp full of prisoners.

“It was miserable,” said Mary. When her father was finally released at the end of the war, he returned to South Africa, buoyed by all the knowledge he had picked up in the first camp, knowledge that would send him back to university to complete his graduate degrees.

Like his father, Walter had a strong sense of justice. The war might have been over but not much had improved for his country’s black population.

Mary said “Dad taught black people to read and write at a time when they were allowed only the most basic, basic education.”

Walter, his first wife Katharine and his second wife Patricia, had been pals in university and all had been activists against Apartheid. In fact it would be the country’s racist policies that made Walter and Katharine decide to immigrate to Canada with their children, Mary 11, Jane nine and David six.

Mary said her parents suffered dreadful guilt over leaving their homeland. The family arrived in Canada in 1961 and Walter’s first position was with the agricultural college in Guelph. The next year he joined the University of Waterloo. In 1980 he received the Distinguished Teachers Award, a testament to his remarkable ability to engage and inspire his students.

Life was not finished surprising Walter. His first wife, Katharine died in 1967 of a rare disease leaving Walter to step into the role of mother and father, a job he did very well. A few years later, his old pal from university, Patricia came to visit from South Africa and quite unexpectedly the two fell in love and married.

Mary said theirs was a happy and extremely loving marriage. Patricia died in 2012.

For Walter, though life had often been cruel, he had always been kind, thoughtful and loving.

“We were really lucky to have him, he was a really good grandpa,” said granddaughter, Amy Young. “He was always reading to us. He had patience.”

Mary called him a “doting grandfather.”

Walter also appreciated life, centred himself as the family connector, the one who kept in touch with everyone.

Amy said “he was nonconfrontational, a peacemaker.” She also called him mischievous, a very funny man.

In his professional life, Walter distinguished himself as a teacher and an academic. He was a Henry James scholar and author of “Alice Munro: Paradox and Parallel.” Mary said her father saw something deeply meaningful in the author’s writings before she was recognized by the rest of the world.

His personal life was coloured by his war experiences. Mary recalls he would never allow any waste, all food had to be consumed and everything recycled. He even refused to use a full stream of water to wash dishes if they were cleaning up undere a running tap, preferring a mere dribble rather than waste water.

“We called it dry cleaning the dishes,” she said.

In 2003 Walter received a conservation award from the Grand River Conservation Authority.

Amy giggled “He nominated himself for that award. He could be cheeky like that.

This article, by Valerie Hill, originally appeared in the Waterloo Region Record. The photo is courtesy University of Waterloo.

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