Former Winthrop board chairwoman, husband killed in ‘murder-suicide’ at Rock Hill home

12/10/2013 5:55 PM

12/10/2013 6:01 PM

A former chairwoman of Winthrop University’s Board of Trustees died Monday after investigators say her husband shot her and then shot himself at their Rock Hill home.

James Martin, 91, and his wife, Mary Jean Martin, 81, were pronounced dead at about 8:30 a.m. at their home in the Huntington Place neighborhood off Herlong Avenue, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said. They had been married for 14 years and had no children together.

Gast called the deaths a murder-suicide.

On Tuesday, autopsy results showed that James and Mary Martin died as a result of gunshot wounds, Gast said.

Police were called to the Martin house at about 8 a.m. after a caregiver found the couple, said Executive Officer Mark Bollinger, spokesman for the Rock Hill Police Department. The door to the house at 1662 Huntcliff Drive was locked, he said, and police don’t believe anyone else was involved in the shootings.

Gast said James Martin left behind a note of instructions, telling whoever found the couple what family members to call. The note was not addressed to a specific person.

Investigators plan to submit forensic evidence to the State Law Enforcement Division, Bollinger said.

Both James and Mary Martin had been in failing health, Bollinger said.

Mary Martin, Gast said, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. She was elected to Winthrop's Board of Trustees in 1994, serving as the university's Alumni Association representative to the board during her tenure. She also served as the board's secretary and vice chair. She was chair of the board's finance committee in 2002 when Winthrop increased its tuition by 15 percent.

Kathy Bigham, chairwoman of the Winthrop Board of Trustees and a member since 2003, remembered Martin as a leader on the board.

“I truly came to admire and respect her,” she said. “She was a very loyal alum of Winthrop, and very proud of the university – of where it was and what it meant to our Rock Hill community.”

Bigham said James and Mary Martin were loyal customers at Thursdays, Too, the restaurant Bigham and her husband, Larry Bigham, owned for years. Though she did not know James Martin well, she said he often attended university events alongside his wife.

Both were faithful members of their church, St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Rock Hill, Bigham said.

Mary Martin “provided strong, quiet leadership,” she said. “She certainly led by example. She didn’t ask of us what she didn’t do.”

She retired from the Board of Trustees in 2006 and received a meritorious resolution honoring her for her service. That same year she wrote an editorial in The Herald decrying then-Gov. Mark Sanford's vocal position that South Carolina lagged behind in education while advocating for more spending cuts in higher education.

"As a university trustee, I welcome opportunities to explain to anyone that tuition is higher now than in the past because the state has reduced its level of support to institutions to the level of a decade ago," she wrote. "What I have difficulty explaining is why our state's governor wants to continue such cuts at an important time in our state..."

Mary Martin served in many capacities at Winthrop, at her church and in the Rock Hill community.

She was a former assistant superintendent at a school district in Georgia and worked as a school principal in York's District 1.

In 1996, Winthrop's college of education honored Mary Martin with an "Award of Excellence" for school improvement in the district.

She was also a Sunday School teacher, former president of the Rock Hill Music Club and invited to participate in a higher education roundtable seminar at the Oxford University in England.

At Winthrop, Mary Martin was a member of the school's athletic booster organization, the Eagle Club, and a member of Friends of Dacus Library.

"She was a dear friend to the Winthrop University Alumni Association," said Debbie Garrick, associate vice president for university development and alumni relations at Winthrop.

An "educator for life," she was "a very influential leader and a mentor to many people," Garrick said.

"We will miss her smiling face at our alumni activities."

Brien Lewis, president of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., served as the board's secretary when Mary Martin was the chair, the same year she celebrated her 50th year class reunion.

She and members of her class were dubbed the "Golden Girls," Lewis said.

"She was very clear-eyed about Winthrop's trajectory," he said.

While James Martin had no connections to Winthrop except through his wife, Lewis recalls seeing the "good, solid couple" at several university functions.

"They were absolutely a team," he said. "Anything she was doing, he was right behind her."

Winthrop President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Public Service and Leadership Anthony DiGiorgio provided the following statement to The Herald on Tuesday afternoon:

"Mary Jean was a very dear lady. She represented and served Winthrop with distinction and grace in so many ways throughout her adult life -- as a student, as an alumna, as an educator, as a trustee, and as our board chair for many years.

"I will always remember her twinkling smile as she recounted stories from the travels she and Jim enjoyed when they were in good health, as well as the warmth and sense of purpose she brought to alumni events and to her official duties during her time with the Board of Trustees. Her quiet ways made her a little uncomfortable personally when in the spotlight, but she was willing to endure that for Winthrop, and for education in general. That especially endeared her to us all."

Current Winthrop board member Karl Folkens remembers Mary Martin as a "compassionate alumna who loved all things Winthrop."

"I remember well how she conducted our trustee meetings as board chair with a firm grasp of the university's needs and direction," Folkens said.

"She was a tireless advocate for Winthrop, willing to shake up those who needed shaking up for the good of the university. Her many contributions to Winthrop will last generations."

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