Remembering Martha Riddle

Steve Charles—During most of my first 20 years editing our quarterly Wabash Magazine, I wasn’t able to get the thing to press without at least a couple all-nighters. Sometimes I was gathering the last few photos, writing the final headlines and kickers, or making corrections to the Class Notes and Remembrances. Sometimes that was just the best time—an empty building in the middle of the night—for the ideas to gel and everything finally come together.

For whatever reason, it always took longer than I’d hoped. Around 11 p.m. I’d realize I still had many hours of work ahead of me and, resigned to a habit I should have given up after college, I’d crank up the music, and find my rhythm, Pretty soon the pages would start to flow.

About 5 a.m. I’d start to drag again, just short of finishing.

Then I’d hear Martha Riddle come in.

For years, Martha, who died on Monday, took care of us in Kane House and the Hays Alumni Center. She arrived before the sun came up. More than once her knock on the door woke me up and got me back to work. But usually she’d just come into the office and we’d talk for a while before she grabbed the trash or tried to vacuum whatever uncontested space she could find on my much-too-cluttered floor.

I likely looked like I should have been taken out with the trash, but Martha never said anything about it. Our conversations ranged from health concerns to difficulties encountered by our kids to the joy playing with grandkids to friends we had lost. Just down-to-earth conversations about people who mattered to us, carried on when I was half-asleep.

But the image of her standing in the doorway and the sound of her voice stay with me for reasons I’m only beginning to understand.

Martha’s pausing in her work to talk with and listen to me made me feel like what I’d spent the night trying to do—gathering the moments and remembrances of alumni, teachers, and students—had meaning beyond my paycheck. And I was grateful again to live and work in place where such conversations are an everyday event.

Martha taught me another lesson in a very different role.

For many years on the Sunday morning of Commencement in the basement of the Chapel, she and her co-workers in Campus Services would fit our seniors for their caps and gowns. They spent the morning helping guys of all sizes and in various stage of consciousness fit into an ever-diminishing number of gowns that had seen better days.

Most of our seniors were taller than Martha—several towered over her. Sometimes she’d have to stand on tiptoe to fasten the collars. But she seemed to enjoy the work, dressed in her finest, not unlike the mothers and grandmothers just arriving on campus for the day’s festivities.

Of all the good things the College did on that day—speeches and spectacles and processions and honorary degrees—in my eyes, Martha’s work shone the brightest. The woman who had literally cleaned up after these guys was now making sure they looked their best on their big day. Some of them didn’t know her, but they realized they were being cared for. And for the many who did know her, it was that first grateful but difficult goodbye of the day.

I recall when Martha was fitting Jesse James ’08 for his gown, making sure the collar snap wasn’t too tight, stepping back to make sure he looked good. I pressed the shutter on my camera just as Jesse leaned forward and embraced her.

Jesse’s a big guy. In the photo Martha is mostly enfolded in his arms and gown. You can’t see the expression on her face. But just imagine how any alma mater—any nurturing mother—might appear at such a moment.

When I look at that photo I see a college family at its best. And I see a good woman who, once or twice every three months at 6 a.m., reminded me that the most important thing we do here, in a world gone mad and cold with speed and efficiency, is to take time for each other.