Martin Hunt, Citizen of the World

Hunt's extemporaneous 90 years

Martin Hunt had a birthday last week. When I dropped in on him, he was wearing a ball cap embroidered with Theda Bara's eyes, and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the bright phrase "90! 630 in Old Dog Years."

Martin Hunt is the only person of his sort. Many older folks recall him as a dancing instructor's assistant at Miss Annie McGhee's Dancing School on old Temple Avenue, back in the '30s and '40s, when the socially aspirant sent their children to Miss Annie's by 7th grade so they'd learn to behave around adults. For years, Martin foxtrotted and jitterbugged with Miss Annie's girls who were too tall for the boys their own age. Few of them might have guessed that Martin, who loved to tell stories about Knoxville society, would ever be a world traveler, an adventurer of sorts, but it turned out that way. He's walked in most of the countries in the world, with friends or on his own, and has seen things most never will.

He lives in a retirement community in Deane Hill, in a sunny apartment full of things to look at. He's given away most of his art collection, but even after he started divesting, he still acquires new pieces now and then. Today he's sitting on a sofa beneath a large, dark, formidable oil painting of a Greek Orthodox priest. Martin compares it to El Greco's "The Grand Inquisitor." "Those long fingers are just the kind of fingers the Grand Inquisitor had. The same expression, no love, just that feeling of control."

Martin's fascination with art is complicated by his eyesight. Since the early 1930s, doctors have told him he's going blind. He's not quite there yet. "I can make out your outline," he says, "but I can't see what color your eyes are."

He has a stack of books handy, fairly new books. He can't read them, but he can discuss them. "I listened to them on the Library for the Blind," he says. "I thought they were good, so I bought copies for my friends." The one he mentions is The Long Tail, a recent title by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson. "It's about how merchandising is going to be taken care of in 20 years," he says, with some excitement.

Martin knows something about merchandising. His grandfather, William Calvin Hunt, was one of the national kingpins of the snuff tobacco industry, a century ago. But the family dissolved into tragic complications, suicide, alcoholism. Martin grew up on 21st Street with no family fortune, and few illusions. A neighbor, old Dr. T.W. Glocker, took an interest in the unusual kid, and let him enter the University of Tennessee at 16, even letting him take business classes without the usual prerequisites. After graduation, he worked as a window-dresser at S.H. George's, the Gay Street department store that was slightly tonier than Miller's. In 1942, his diminishing eyesight scotched him for war service, but he got a job with Rohm & Haas, when it was a heavily guarded plant manufacturing Plexiglas nose cones for B-17s. He worked for the factory for six years, mostly in quality control, in rotating shifts at the 24-hour plant, and became known for his attention to detail.

With the war over, his Aunt Mary Gill needed a man's help in her fashionable import boutique, just across the ridge on Cumberland Avenue, Martin felt obliged to pitch in. Mary Gill was a woman of her own. Her mother had advised Mary Gill never to kiss a man, that it would only lead to trouble, and Martin says she never did. She ran a successful business, which is generally better than a bad marriage.

One of Mary Gill's maxims was, "You can't sell anything to people who know more about it than you do." So she insisted that Martin travel. In 1952, he toured 12 nations in Europe, meeting the people who sent his aunt silver dinnerware and chandeliers. Two years later, he saw the Middle East, Spain, and Portugal. Every buying trip made him want to take another. Martin says all the money he's spent on his travels came from money he earned in salaries at Rohm & Haas and Mary Gill, and the investments he made from it. "There was never any old family money," he says. "Just the money I made myself."

One trip meant more to him than most. In 1958, he went alone to India, and Kashmir, to Srinagar, and the Dal Lake, and the slopes of the Himalayas. (He pronounces it the old way, accenting the second syllable.) He and a guide took an electric train out of town to the end of the line, then his guide bargained with Sherpas for "ponies," which looked to this Tennessean like donkeys. They reached a Muslim resort, off season; run-down, he says, it reminded him a little of Elkmont. An assistant, a young Muslim, had brought a feast, multiple meats, cakes, and fruits. "I said, ‘I can't eat all this. You sit down and eat." The boy replied, "No, Sahib. I'm not allowed."

"The hell you're not, I'm paying your way," Martin said.

At length the boy spoke about himself; he was 14, from New Delhi. "My father is a political prisoner," he said. At the time, Muslim-dominant Kashmir was petitioning to become part of Pakistan, and the boy's father, involved in that effort, had fallen out of favor with the Indian government. He had visited his father and found him naked in a dirt-floor cell; he'd been whipped.

"I said, ‘God, how awful that is. You must hate the people of India for doing this to your father."

"The boy said, ‘I can't hate.'

Martin said, "I can't understand how you can't hate them."

The boy said, "These are my brothers who are doing this. I am a Citizen of the World."

Martin's large, hooded eyes are moist. "I had never heard that expression before," he says.

Martin tells that story frequently to schoolchildren. He says they seem to understand it better than their parents do.