Girls' track coach served as special agent, cooked with Julia Child

The Newtonite

Mr. Martin at a Track Meet Wednesday, January 16.
Photo taken by Robin Donohoe. Mr. Martin at a Track Meet Wednesday, January 16.

by Elena Schwartz

Girls’ indoor track recently won their 19th league title in 25 years. This legacy has brought pride to the team and to the school, and even more so to the man who started it all.

Track coach and former math teacher Peter Martin created the girls’ track program at this school in 1974. He also served as the team’s first coach, a job he performed without a salary. “But I’m not bitter!” Martin insists. He has given his life to this team, as he is wont to remind all “trackies.”

But few people realize that before becoming the long distance girls’ track coach, Martin served as a special agent in the military, acted as a cooking assistant to Julia Child and lived in England and France.

Martin was drafted during the Vietnam War in 1965 after graduating from UMass Amherst, where he majored in math. Martin’s skills as a mathematician combined with his reluctance to serve in the military landed him a job as a special agent with the CIA.

“My job was basically to spy on us,” said Martin. “I was supposed to catch any spies within our ranks.”

One of his prouder moments was apprehending two teenagers who were selling “fake Top Secret documents” to the Russians, he said. Martin reported, “I was special agent of the month 13 months in a row! I could open a safe faster without a combination than other people could with it.”

Eventually Martin finished his service and settled in Cambridge with his wife Suzanne.

It was during Martin’s years living in Cambridge that he and Julia Child, a famous chef, collaborated in the kitchen. In 1977, Child asked a mutual friend if she knew anyone who was good at “slicing and dicing,” said Martin. The friend suggested Martin. He was enlisted, and the two began to cook together on occasion. Even years after his time with Child, cooking remains one of Martin’s pastimes. Every winter Martin would teach a cooking class out of his home; his kitchen is, to this day, equipped with a restaurant stove.“I’ve made a three course dinner every night of my life,” he said.

Before he was ever a coach, Martin was an educator. He began teaching at this school in 1971 as a math teacher. In 1972, boys’ cross country coach Joe Connelly invited Martin to work with the team because Martin himself was a very successful high school runner. Martin accepted and coached the team during that year and the next year.

In 1973, Martin was approached by a student, Cindy Hines ’76, who asked that she be allowed to run on the boys’ cross country team because there was not a girls’ cross country team at this school at the time. Martin allowed it, and in 1974, he founded the girls’ cross country team at this school. The founding of girls’ indoor and outdoor track followed in 1975.

Two years later, Martin accepted the Fulbright Scholarship to teach math at Eltham College in London for a year. During his year at Eltham, Martin started a cross country program.

“The headmaster yelled at me for taking the sport too seriously,” said Martin. “Then we started winning everything.” Under Martin’s leadership, the team went on to win both the Southeast London Championship and the Northwest Kent Championship. At the end of the year, Martin left Eltham and returned to this school, and he is sad to say that it took the Eltham cross country team 30 years to win another title without him.

Since returning to Newton, Martin has been a coach on the girls’ indoor and outdoor track team every single year for 31 years. Although girls’ indoor track has won more state finals than any other team in the area, according to head coach Joe Tranchita, Martin believes that coaches have limited control over a team’s success.

“Distance runners have to have this ultimate need to get from here to there faster than the last time,” said Martin. “It’s about you, not me. If you don’t have that, I can’t give it to you.”

When asked what distinguishes him as coach, Martin answered, “I’ve always had much better relationships with my runners than other coaches have.”

His runners seem to agree. Senior Kaylee Spitaels, who has run indoor and outdoor track under Martin for four years, described him as “a strange old man you can’t help but love.”

Martin is well-known on the girls’ track team for constantly dispensing advice and life lessons. Senior Meghan Bellerose, who has also run with Martin for four years, said, “He tells you what you need to do. You hear his life stories and you learn from them.”

“His five tips of financial success!” laughed Spitaels.

“Live within your means,” countered Bellerose, grinning. “Even below!”

Some of Martin’s advice seems to have stuck. Samantha Gluck ’10, who ran indoor and outdoor track all eight seasons, said, “One piece of advice that I very clearly remember him giving was that ice cream is medicine. This was part of his broader lesson that being ‘in good shape’ is much more than physical fitness.”

It has been 38 years of coaching the same team every season. Martin currently owns an apartment in Paris, France, where he lives part time, but he still comes back every year to coach girls’ indoor and outdoor track.

“I’m very lucky,” said Martin. “I’ve had a lot of the sames, but it hasn’t been a boring life.”