Ellis woman stays busy everywhere -- from nursing homes to classrooms to political campaigns



By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Spend just a few minutes with Willena Martin, and it's obvious she doesn't care one iota about age.

The Ellis woman doesn't look, act or talk like she's 90 years old. Maybe that's because she doesn't slow down long enough for age to catch up with her.

"I can't hardly believe it," she said in reference to her 90-year-old birthday two weeks ago. "I think someone changed the calendar."

Martin said keeping busy has been the solution to staying young.

"Marry young and have a houseful of kids," she said. "You don't have time to think about getting old."

Martin, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, was working as a volunteer nurse's aide in a hospital in Okmulgee during World War II when she met her husband, Woodrow Wilson Martin, who was working for Texaco Oil Co.

Her husband's job eventually brought them to Kansas, and they ended up in the small town of Chase, where Martin served as the town's postmaster for 20 years.

After her husband died in the late 1970s, Martin worked a few more years before retiring in 1983. Martin, active in numerous organizations in Chase, remained there for approximately 15 more years before moving to Ellis to be near her two youngest sons, Phil and Ken, and their families.

In her new town, Martin didn't know anyone -- "I was bored spitless" -- so she decided to see if the schools needed some help; she had volunteered in the school system in Chase.

She found teachers could use some help in classrooms at St. Mary and Washington elementary schools. Someone in the Foster Grandparents program heard about her and asked her to join, informing Martin she would receive a small stipend for her work in the schools.

"They told me I had to keep a time card, and I about didn't do it," Martin said.

Besides her sons living in Ellis, another draw to this area for Martin was Fort Hays State University being nearby. She had been taking classes at Sterling College while living in Chase.

"I had great teachers growing up, and I love taking (college) classes," she said.

Martin no longer attends Fort Hays because "I don't have time."

She has a 100-year-old friend from the Chase area, Hazel Dick, who she visits in Hays at Via Christi Village, and she goes to water aerobics three times a week in the morning.

These days, Martin is helping her son, Phil, with his political campaign.

"My son is running for the state Legislature," Martin said proudly of Phil, who is seeking to fill the 110th District Democratic seat in the Kansas House of Representatives.

So instead of cracking the books herself, Martin now devotes her classroom time to helping youngsters.

Every day from noon to 3 p.m., Martin can be found helping out in Stacy Befort's kindergarten room at Washington. And the things the children learn from Martin don't necessarily come from a book.

"We chat back and forth, " Martin said. "It's a bonding experience. School isn't just about (books).

"Learning to work beside others and how to work with others is just as important. If you can't do that, you won't get very far in this world."