Larger Than Life

Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

Larger Than Life: Memories of Carl Martin Hames

During my high school years when my own father was absent, Martin Hames became a father figure to me.  As a student, he always pointed me in the right direction when I searched for a new novel to read, understanding how literature was a lifeline for me. He entertained our class with fabulous stories of great artists and gossipy vignettes from his own trips around the world. As eccentric as Ignatius Reilly and as flamboyant as Truman Capote, he was a character in his own right. Who can forget the story he told when he, a four-hundred-pound man, tried to ride an unsuspecting camel in the Egyptian desert? The narrative content—whether a lecture on Faulkner or a summary of what happened that day in the lunchroom with Mrs. Wilson—was irrelevant. He always gave an Oscar winning performance, the bar scene in Stay Hungry his closest brush with Hollywood.

In his classroom lined with the yellow and black playbills, abstract paintings, captivating photographs and bizarre sculptures, students nervously stood before him to recite the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Slurping his sixth cup of coffee from the largest cup ever made, he barely acknowledged them, flipping furiously through his appointment book to schedule his dinner engagements. Reading Beowulf as a senior or trying to imitate a Rauschenburg painting in “America in the Twentieth Century,” I learned the transformative power of the arts, how at its very best art can sustain, reflect, and heal our culture.

I was also lucky Martin took a personal interest in me as a student. I discovered many years later that when I couldn’t afford the college trip, he’d helped my mother with the cost.  With such an incredible intellect, he’d been accepted to Harvard, but his mother, a single woman, couldn’t afford to make his dream a reality. A dedicated educator, he showed a heart for his students who faced similar obstacles. Throughout his teaching life, access to higher education was a moral imperative for him.

After graduating from college, I returned to teach English at Altamont.  As a teacher, on many days it felt like Martin conducted his business like a 15th century Florentine prince, signing edicts and commissioning sculptures. But he also toiled like a peasant for his beloved Altamont, intuitively understanding people’s characters and motivations as he navigated his way through a world of students, parents, colleagues, trustees, artists, and socialites.

Martin could be a loyal friend and a fierce foe. There was very little in between. After eight years of teaching, I left when Martin and I had gotten turned sideways. But to this day, the man who inspired me as a student and encouraged me as a colleague is one who continues to loom larger than life in my life. I see a certain piece of art, read a particular author, or remember one of his exaggerated pronouncements in a given situation, and my mind flashes to him. When I finished writing my recent book, I dreamed I ran into his office shouting, “Guess what? Guess what? I just wrote a book, and it’s 87,000 words!”

A dear colleague once told me of a conversation she had with him a couple of years after I’d left teaching at Altamont. She said Martin had commented how much he’d once loved me. Hearing this, hearing the past tense loud and clear, I was filled with sadness, a piece of my heart still bruised. I only saw Martin twice after we parted ways. The last time he was confined to a wheelchair. Struggling to speak, he pulled me over with a mischievous glint in his eye and started regaling me with a humorous anecdote about Roosevelt, the long-time Altamont custodian, of all people.

The last days of Martin’s life, my mother and I went to visit him in the hospital, but he was down the hall, hooked up to a dialysis machine, as he had done so many times the last years of his life.  I signed my name, the last on an impossibly long list, hoping he would see my signature, hoping he knew that no matter if he’d once loved me, I still loved him for the kindness he showed me as a child.


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