In Portsmouth: ‘Mom has been a trendsetter’

Birthday gal Mary Martin, who retired at 80, spent her career working jobs typically reserved for men

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/19/22

PORTSMOUTH — Although Mary Martin celebrated her 90th birthday during a surprise party in her honor Saturday, she doesn’t have to think too far back about her career. 

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In Portsmouth: ‘Mom has been a trendsetter’

Birthday gal Mary Martin, who retired at 80, spent her career working jobs typically reserved for men

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Although Mary Martin celebrated her 90th birthday during a surprise party in her honor Saturday, she doesn’t have to think too far back about her career. 

It was only 10 years ago when she retired, at age 80, after more than 26 years as a fire safety inspector and public educator for the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) fire department. 

“As a fire inspector I’ve been through every single house on the island that the government has, from Fort Adams to Portsmouth. I’ve been through every last one of them,” a “flabbergasted” Mary said while being showered with love and affection by family, friends and former co-workers at the FOP Lodge in Middletown, where the party was held.

She readily admits, however, that a couple of those inspections were rather speedy. Mary recalled visiting one home that had a large tank, but nothing inside. Curious, she asked the owner about it.

“‘Oh, we’ve got a boa constrictor that got out of the tank,’ they said. I’ll be honest with you — I’m not a snake-lover. It got a very quick inspection, believe me,” she said.

Saturday’s party was planned as a surprise, but Mary got wise to things as the day wore on. The cat was out of the bag when Bob Lantz, a neighbor of her older daughter, Leilani Beaudry, arrived at her home with his Green 1931 Ford Model A Roadster. “When he showed up with that car, I knew something was afloat,” said Mary.

At the lodge, family and friends described Mary as a determined woman who did everything she could to support her family, and being female wasn’t going to stop her.

“I think mom, even though she would totally deny it, has been a trendsetter,” said Heidi Farrington, her younger daughter from Washington state, who helped organize the party and traveled across the country to be there. 

Not long after high school, in 1951, Mary joined the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. She spent several years there and met her future husband, Jim Martin, who was in the Corps. “I had to get out because I got married, and back in those days the military didn’t want females in the service,” said Mary.

Heidi said she still has a photo from her mother’s boot camp graduation, which was signed by the other candidates. “They signed it to ‘the General,’” she said.

Mary and Jim got divorced when Heidi was in high school. “We were poor, but I never felt like we were poor,” Heidi said. “She still managed to save money for trips to Disney World and made sure we got wherever we wanted to go — like any single mom working her butt off.”

Mary drove a school bus in Portsmouth for many years, supplementing her income with Tupperware sales, and working a desk job in an office.

First female officer

Then, in the 1970s, she because the first female police officer at NETC, also known as the Navy Base. Years later, in 1985, she was invited to become the first female officer on the Middletown Police Department after she graduated “with academic excellence” from the R.I,. Municipal Police Academy and joined the department as an auxiliary officer. She was also sent to train at the Military Police School at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

Her time in Middletown was short-lived, however, and she left after a year to concentrate her work at the Navy Base. “I hated to quit Middletown, but we had a shortage on the base and that was my primary job,” Mary said.

Her career took a different turn in 1986 when she joined the NETC Fire Department as a fire safety inspector and public educator. 

“The fire chief wasn’t crazy about having a female, but he had no choice; command had said, ‘You will hire a female,’” said Mary, adding that all the other men were “great” to her and very supportive.

One of them was David Souza, who worked as a driver/operator and was a captain in the department. “She was great. She would be the one who goes into the building and does the inspections and make sure there are no fire hazards or safety issues. I enjoyed working with her for 24, 25 years. She was there before I got there,” he said.

Retired at 80

Mary would work that job for more than 26 years until her retirement at the age of 80.

“She found out after she put in her paperwork that a bunch of the guys were asking her, ‘Why aren’t you staying?’ She said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you wanted me to.’ She probably would have stayed longer,” said  Leilani.

Mary’s work ethic and the fact she still stays busy in her retirement has helped keep her young, said her children. They’re proud of the way their mom always followed her heart and was sort of a pioneer during her career.

“She would always tell you she’s not a feminist, but she did what she wanted to do,” said Heidi. “She’s always been super supportive of all the kids. She worked, worked, worked so we were never wanting.”

2022 by East Bay Media Group

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.