Old Colony Memorial - PLYMOUTH By Daniel Axelrod MPG Newspapers
Former Plymouth conservation agent John Martini faced his first obstacle at six months old when his parents left him on the doorstep of St. Mary's Home in Binghamton, N.Y.
Raised by nuns until he was 18, Martini moved out and worked as a cab driver in Boston, where he paid his way through UMass-Boston and earned a bachelor's degree in political science and American history.
After two marriages, two children, a career teaching high school, and running a landscaping business, Martini died July 24 at age 55.
Joni, his wife of 19 years, suspects her husband died of Lyme disease.
His death was unexpected and relatively sudden, and the official cause remains unknown pending numerous tests.
Martini left behind his daughter Julie, 30, his son Jeffery, 27, a massive backyard garden of exotic plants and a legacy of being a vibrant, outgoing, sociable, kind, generous, optimistic, and loving man, according to friends and family.
Reaching out to everyone
Joni Martini still has the thank you letters from John's former Falmouth junior/senior high school students tucked away in a folder.
"Students sent letters saying they were sorry to see him go. They liked his sense of humor," Martini said.
"He used to have some students who stayed in touch for years at a time. Even after they'd move to different states they'd call and ask him for advice."
Wherever he worked and whatever he did, Martini made a lasting impression.
"He was a family guy, warm, caring and wonderful, and he made you feel very special," Michelle Turner, administrative assistant for Plymouth's Conservation Commission, said.
Turner worked closely with Martini during his days as a part-time conservation agent for Plymouth.
Turner said staffers knew when the bubbly Martini came in the town offices because he filled the room with a cheerful vibe and chitchat.
Turner is Italian, and Martini used to kid her in Italian, discuss Italian food and talk about Italy.
"You felt like you were a part of him when you spoke with him," Turner said. "Everyone misses his personality. I still have a picture of him on my desk. I look at it all the time."
After graduating among the top 5 percent of his class at UMass in 1972, Martini cultivated his love of cooking by working as a chef for a nursing home in Falmouth.
He married Christine Beaulac, with whom he had his two children.
Martini spent the next 13 years working, mostly as a chef, and raising his children Jeffrey and Julie. He won custody of the children in 1980, after a long divorce.
Now a single parent, he was partly led to teaching by his need to make more money. He went back to school at Southeastern University to earn his teaching certificate and began teaching history for the Falmouth school district in 1985.
Martini again graduated from Southeastern magna cum laude, among the top 5 percent of his class.
At SMU in the mid '80s, John focused on another lifelong passion - learning about New England's Native American clans.
Joni still occupies the couple's Plymouth house, where visitors will see a bookcase, built by John, full of perhaps 400 books on Native Americans - just a sample of what he read.
Back when John was in school, he visited the Falmouth Christmas Tree Shop just to catch a glimpse of Joni, a fellow divorcee "he had the 'hots' for," Joni said.
Coincidentally, Joni's sister, Barbara Beltran, and Martini earned their teaching degrees at the same time.
Barbara liked Martini - who had no idea she was Joni's sister - so she gave him Joni's phone number.
John's random phone call to Joni one day led to a six-hour conversation, a follow-up date to the movies, a six-month courtship and marriage.
"You know how people say they have a soul mate?" Joni said. "There was just something that clicked there. We both were interested in the same things and it wasn't awkward to talk."
Martini got a job at Falmouth schools, where he worked for three years before moving to Cornwall, Vt. in search of a wholesome life and good schools for his beloved children.
John taught for a time in Vermont and the family became self-sufficient farmers.
No flatlanders (except John) "Usually Vermont natives call newcomers flatlanders and it takes a while to fit in, but John fit right in," Joni said.
Martini fit in so well that Cornwall's 1,000 or so residents voted the newcomer onto the board of selectmen.
When the family arrived, they settled in after buying 25 acres and a three-bedroom contemporary home renovated by John after he studied carpentry on his own.
The family grew crops, tended chickens and heated the house with wood John split and burned in wood stoves.
Joni raised the kids and, while they were in school, worked at a general store where she got to know community members.
One day, residents at the store suggested Joni tell John to run for the board of selectmen. At first he dismissed her suggestion, but soon John delved into campaigning.
He loaded hand-painted signs into his big old white Oldsmobile, drove around town and shook hands and chatted with everyone he met.
The newcomer with no political experience won the local election by a landslide against an incumbent town leader.
Martini's time as a Cornwall selectman was the beginning of a long life of community service as a teacher and member of various boards and committees in the communities where he lived.
Martini also taught from 1987 to 1989 at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, Vt., where he established an alternative education program for disadvantaged and disaffected students, just as he'd done at Falmouth.
Martini even helped start a reading program and aided in the development of the state's Educational Reform Act.
All along, though, a love of the earth grew deep within him. No longer content just to foster his student's academic and personal growth, he went to school to become a landscaper.
After Martini learned landscaping, the family moved to Plymouth. He had lived here briefly and loved the town, and Joni wanted to be closer to her family in Falmouth.
Making his mark on Plymouth
Besides his Vermont community service, Martini served on Plymouth's master plan committee, the downtown steering committee and two different economic development committees and as a town meeting member.
He was a long-time Mason, a part-time conservation agent for Plymouth and even a tutor for those who couldn't read.
Speak with those who knew or loved Martini and you'll find a recurring theme - not only did John do everything he could to get to know people, he couldn't stand pat if he saw something in the community needing fixing.
"He meant a lot to many of us for different reasons," friend and planning board member Larry Rosenblum said. "John was concerned about the community and also a great cook, a great gardener and you got the sense he was a shepherd tending to his flock with everything." Rosenblum was shocked when Martini recruited him to run for the planning board. "Usually the candidate picks the campaign manager, here the campaign manager picked the candidate," Rosenblum said. Rosenblum remembers one day when Martini drove past the synagogue on Pleasant Street downtown and noticed the lawn's beat-up appearance. Martini wasn't Jewish. "But he said to the Rabbi, 'It looks like the garden needs tending,' and he volunteered to do that," Rosenblum said.
Martini's landscaping business, Alden Court Gardens, is still owned by his wife and operated by 24-year-old Jeff Parsons and his assistant, who serve 40 to 50 clients.
"John was never afraid to learn something new or different, and I think that's what made him so successful," Joni said. "If you spoke Polish he'd go out and try to speak Polish."
The Martinis' house is decorated with Native American artifacts from John's travels.
Outside, John's second passion is quickly evident in the form of the sprawling garden with red pine needle-covered walkways, through which John would walk potential customers to help them plan their gardens.
"His knowledge of plants was amazing, and he knew all the Latin names. Sometimes I had to say 'Speak English, John,' " Turner said. "And as conservation agent his rapport with people in the field was special."
Even Martini's kids are excelling in life. Julie works for the Massachusetts Cultural Council on Arts and Jeffery is doing his graduate work at Georgetown University.
After a stint working for the conservative think-tank Rand Corporation, Jeffery is studying Arabic.
The end: fast and frightening
The end for John Martini was fast and frightening.
Martini contracted the deer tick-transmitted Lyme disease last August and the tell-tale big bull's-eye rash appeared on the upper inside of his right leg complete with a hard egg-like lump.
Two months of antibiotics followed and the disease seemed to go into remission.
Subsequent Lyme disease tests showed up negative.
But by February John felt tired all the time. His face was puffy and his eyes were often half-closed.
The muscular 5-foot, 6-inch 150-pound landscaper became weak and lost muscle strength.
He hired assistants to help with his business and took naps during the day between landscaping jobs.
"The doctors had no clue what was going on, and every part of his body hurt," Joni said. "John seemed to feel it was still the Lyme disease, but the doctors said it wasn't and testing didn't show it."
By June, John was hospitalized at Jordan Hospital for a week with the mysterious ailment.
He seemed to feel better and he came back home, but, by early July, Martini was back in the hospital and sicker than ever.
"On July 3, I took him to the Jordan ER and he could hardly walk, his heart was racing, and we were so very scared," Joni said. "We didn't know if he was having a heart attack."
The hospital admitted him, ran more inconclusive tests and on July 9 sent him to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
He died about two weeks later after a steady stream of inconclusive tests and antibiotics, but not before he got to know all the doctors and nurses on the floor.
He spent his last days sleeping, reading the novel "The Da Vinci Code" and dipping his hands in the soil of a plant a friend brought him.
The hospital is still running tests on his body to confirm whether Lyme disease was the culprit.
Joni suspects Lyme disease killed her husband, who lived a healthy life up until he was diagnosed with the disease last August.
"He was always positive and he thought he'd get better when he got sick," Joni said. "I'm still in shock. It's still hard to believe that he's gone. I just miss his voice and his laughter. He had a very good sense of humor, he joked a lot, he was silly and he used to like to tell and play practical jokes."
Martini hopes the doctors pinpoint what killed John, and most of all she wants the public to somehow learn from John's death. (See sidebar)
She thinks John "would be honored" if his body is used to help fight Lyme disease.
"I told the doctors if there's anything in his body that can help the next person that comes along, so they don't have to suffer like he did, I hope they find it, because I still have to live with the fact that, if they don't find anything, I just won't know what killed him."