HAYWARD — Dr. Charles Martin is highly overqualified for his position as a biology teacher at Hayward High School — and that's a whopper of an understatement.
If having a high school biology teacher with a Ph.D. in molecular systems from Northwestern University isn't remarkable enough, a look into Martin's past reveals a man who has experienced quite a bit more of life than most.
During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Martin worked for both National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Vice President Walter Mondale. He also supervised 250 Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia during a violent coup d'etat.
He also worked for Time magazine and helped launch Discover magazine. He taught at Northwestern and Howard universities before finishing out a 21-year career at UC Berkeley as a tenured professor about 12 years ago.
But just two years into retirement, Martin, 72, was bitten again by the teaching bug.
"I just felt that I wanted to use my experience to encourage young people," he said. "And I really do enjoy teaching."
His calling now is to get his Hayward students motivated to study and learn science, and make the most of their lives.
"It's been interesting from the standpoint from making the change to teaching teenagers," Martin said. "We have a lot of students that need that extra oomph to get them going. You have to make them laugh, make them serious, make them understand. You have to be very resourceful, show a lot more initiative, and you're called upon to show a lot more ingenuity to make things happen."
Hayward High Principal George Bullis said he has never run across another former professor who has returned to teach high schoolers.
"I know him as an inspiration to many students," Bullis said. "He really is concerned with his students' success and well-being."
Former student Kristina Minor would agree with that statement.
"He basically transformed my life in a major way," said Minor, 22.
Minor, who is from a low-income background, said Martin got her to take an interest in science. She credits her full scholarship to UC Berkeley to a letter of recommendation written by Martin. After a second letter of recommendation, Minor is now headed to Stanford's science credential program, which she begins in June.
"He has inspired me to be a science teacher. He was a major force in that," she said.
Martin said while he was growing up in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, his adult mentors influenced him to pursue higher education. His father, Arthur Richard Martin, was a rarity in his day — an African-American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, the combined effort by the U.S., Canada and Britain to develop nuclear weapons. He bought young Charles his first microscope at age 7.
"He taught me a lot about science — how to do science," he said.
After earning his Ph.D. and teaching at Northwestern, Martin landed a position as a professor of biology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He also worked as director of the Bureau of Educational Research at Howard, and as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education.
At age 38, while still at Howard, he was selected for a White House Fellowship at the start of the Carter administration.
"He was a brilliant man," Martin said of Carter. "He had a great Southern sense of humor."
Carter asked Martin to be a Peace Corps director, and in 1979 Martin left for Liberia to supervise 250 Peace Corps volunteers there.
He arrived in Liberia during a tumultuous period when Master Sgt. Samuel Kanyon Doe killed Liberia's President William Tolbert and began executing members of Tolbert's government, as was vividly recalled in Time magazine by correspondent Jack E. Smith.
Smith, Washington Post reporter Leon Dash and Martin were witnesses to the brutal execution by a firing squad of 13 government officials, which was staged on a beach for the foreign media and diplomatic corps.
Martin said he feared for his life during the ordeal, but remained in Liberia for a year with the Peace Corps. The experience left him struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder years after leaving the country.
"I knew Charles as Chuck Martin," said Dash, now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I found him to be an informed, insightful observer of what was going on in Liberia. He was open, gregarious and practiced open-door hospitality."
Martin returned to Howard University before moving west to take a position at UC Berkeley.
"Charles Martin has lived a remarkable life," said Jack E. White, now a freelance writer in Richmond, Va. "In the time that I knew him, he went from a professor at Howard University to living through some of the most tumultuous events in Africa and then returning to academic life. He's seen it all. It's really quite amazing."
Martin has three grown daughters and two grandchildren. He lives in Oakland and dedicates his days to the students at Hayward High.
"It's been a fantastic journey," he said.
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