Even after Lou Gehrig's disease robbed his ability to speak, Joe Martin became an outspoken voice for tolerance.
The former bank executive, who died Saturday, worked behind the scenes to mold Charlotte's future. But once he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), he took his causes public.
He urged people of different races to go to lunch. He chastised officials he thought were intolerant of gays. Facing his disease, he became a symbol of hope.
Martin, 65, died at his family's Lake Norman home. The cause was respiratory difficulties from a pulmonary embolism, said his brother, former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin.
"To me, Joe would rank as one of the great citizens of our community over any time frame," retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr., Martin's former boss and longtime friend, said Saturday. "He was a great example for all of us for doing the right thing."
Joe Bacon Martin III learned social justice early. He and three brothers grew up in Winnsboro, S.C., where their convictions were shaped by their Presbyterian minister father, the Rev. Arthur Martin, and mother, Mary Martin.
The Rev. Martin preached racial equality when it was unpopular and often dangerous.
At Davidson College, Martin was a cheerleader and pushed the school for a mascot -- a live wildcat -- which he found. As a student leader, he constantly questioned the practice of segregation. In 1962, the college enrolled its first black student, who was from Zaire. Martin had graduated, but was working at the college. He roomed with the student to make him feel welcome.
After a master's degree in American studies at the University of Minnesota, Martin earned a doctorate in medieval English at Duke.
But academia wasn't in his future.
In 1973, he joined a Charlotte bank called NCNB and became one of the platoon of visionaries that eventually built the company into Bank of America.
The bank pledged Martin's time and $3 million to rebuild uptown Charlotte's Fourth Ward, once an affluent quadrant that had fallen on hard times. From that project, Martin helped form the bank's Community Development Corp., which launched an aggressive plan to revitalize uptown and other center cities.
"He passionately believed the bank could be used to make the world a better place," Dennis Rash, then head of the development arm, said in 2001.
Martin left banking in 1978 to raise money and head the college relations department at Queens College (now Queens University of Charlotte). Five years later, McColl was named CEO of the bank and lured Martin back.
Martin became McColl's top adviser and "idea man." McColl often called Martin the bank's conscience.
Martin constantly looked for ways to use the bank's money to improve communities the bank served.
Once when a junior college in Rock Hill needed money to get accredited, Martin got the bank to give it to the school. When Livingstone College in Salisbury wanted to build a student life center, Martin again got the bank to foot the bill.
As a school board member in the 1980s, he hatched an idea that became the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Educational Foundation. He and his wife, Joan, sent their three children to public schools.
He got the bank to put up $500,000 for information about the burning of black churches that plagued the South in the late 1990s. He pushed McColl and others to hire minorities.
And in dozens of cities in the Carolinas and beyond where the bank does business, there are educational and housing programs that help the poor bearing Martin's influence and sense of justice. ImaginOn, the children's theater center and library, is named after Martin and his wife.
"There are a lot of things in the Carolinas that wouldn't have stood a chance if not for Joe Martin," George Battle, an AME Zion bishop from Charlotte, said in a previous interview. "I don't know of a greater tribute to a man's life when he knows he's made a difference to the poorest of the poor."
Martin was part of McColl's "inner sanctum" that made the decision to expand NCNB into Florida, which led to the formation of NationsBank, Bank of America's predecessor. Martin coined the name NationsBank.During that expansion in the 1980s, the NationsBank team checked into a Florida hotel as The Martin Group, an effort to keep their visit secret. McColl once said he called the hotel one day asking for Joe B. Martin. But a receptionist told him several rooms were registered to a Martin, but none with a first name or middle initial.
Before every merger, Martin coached McColl on his personal behavior and body language.
"Joe was the thinker in the crowd," McColl said. "He would coach me on what not to do and what not to say."
Even after Martin was diagnosed with ALS in 1994, he remained McColl's close adviser. But understanding his mortality, Martin began to take higher-profile stands for racial harmony and helping other ALS patients.
In 1997, Mecklenburg County's commissioners raised his ire after threatening to cut money to arts programs because a few members objected to plays with gay themes. Martin, McColl and others appeared before the board to voice their disgust.
"What in the name of heaven are you doing to this town?" Martin scolded, gamely pulling himself to the lectern from a wheelchair. "This debate is not about the arts, is it? ... This is about the power of government -- and how some people can use it against others."
He also proposed "Race Day," calling for everyone to invite someone of a different race to lunch. And later, he impolitely declined the county's highest award, writing in a scathing letter that he didn't want any part of the commission's intolerant, anti-gay faction.
"The harder it has become for me to speak, the more attention people seem to pay to what I have to say," Martin once said.
The degenerative disease that killed baseball legend Lou Gehrig left Martin paralyzed and unable to talk, walk and move a single body part except for a finger, eyes and few facial muscles. Each year, 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease, according to the ALS Association.
Martin used a special computer that allowed him to write by focusing his eyes on letters of the alphabet. He spent his days rattling off e-mails and, letter by letter, writing a book about overcoming his illness and a well-received novel set in South Carolina published in 2001. He was finishing a second novel when he died.
And he became a crusader for ALS patients.
In 1998, he and Jim Martin raised more than $3 million -- with the help of family and friends -- to build the Carolinas Neuromuscular/ALS Center at Carolinas Medical Center.
In 2003, Martin declared he no longer had ALS, but was living with it. He and Joan began sending that message by the Internet and began raising money for technology that he said makes survival an option.
"He pushed leaders in the ALS community very hard to tell people that the disease was something that you lived with, not something you died from," said Bill Wood, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church and a longtime friend.
In the end, Jim Martin believes his brother proved it. ALS patients typically live five years after diagnosis. Joe Martin lived nearly 12.
"ALS took all his motor nerves away, but not his brain," Jim Martin said. "He could still live and be creative. He was still part of a family and gave love and received it. He was engaged.
"Joe would take great pride that he had survived ALS."
• Funeral arrangements weren't complete Saturday. Family members are planning a memorial service for Wednesday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1000 E. Morehead St., Charlotte.
Published by Charlotte Observer on Jul. 2, 2006.