Victory on the Occoquan

At St. John’s College, Martin stared down his own mortality. Photo by: Bill Cardoni

Roger Martin C’65 was not your typical freshman on a crew team. For one thing, he was 61 and president of Randolph-Macon College.

He was also missing a large portion of one lung.

By Roger H. Martin C’65

I am not very comfortable. A three-pronged catheter has just been placed deep in my chest by a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. Three tubes—one white, one blue and one red—ascend from the catheter to three bottles hanging from a chromium-plated IV pole next to my bed. This is why I can only move my head. One of the bottles contains Interleukin II, a treatment for advanced melanoma, the cancer I developed at the beginning of the summer. I am semi-delirious because of the biological agents streaming into my body.

I cannot think very clearly. But, as if I were having a bad dream, I am remembering the events that got me here.

I am remembering the coughing episode at commencement and at the alumni reunion just four months before. I am a college president, and being able to speak clearly is extremely important in my work. I was sent to a pulmonary expert at a nearby hospital. X-rays revealed a disturbing shadow behind my left lung. Susan, my wife of 30 years, cried when the doctor said that it might be a tumor.

The next day a CT scan confirmed our worst fears: There was a three-centimeter tumor on top of my left lung. The doctor suspected that it was a reccurrence of the melanoma, a type of skin cancer, that had appeared two years before on my left earlobe, and which had been surgically removed. At the time, we thought I was in the clear, but the melanoma had obviously come back, this time internally. A painful biopsy determined that, indeed, my skin cancer had metastasized.

A nurse walks into my room and takes my temperature. She then hangs a bottle of Cisplatin on the IV pole and connects the tube to my catheter. She is wearing very heavy rubber gloves because Cisplatin can erode the skin of anyone who touches it.

The only real treatment for melanoma once it enters the body is to have it surgically removed. So just before my 57th birthday, the top lobe of my left lung was cut out along with the tumor. The surgeon told me afterward that although he got rid of most of the tumor, he did not achieve the margin he likes because the tumor was situated precariously close to my aorta. Since some of the cancer cells might have remained, he suggested that I go through interferon treatments, just as a precaution. Interferon is a drug that stimulates the immune system to fight cancer cells.

Interferon knocked me off my feet. I could hardly make it out of bed each morning. A CT scan several days later revealed that the tumor had returned. My oncologist told Susan and me that I had a year to live, maybe a year and a half at best. She suggested we get our affairs in order and look into hospice care.

The Cisplatin now takes effect. I completely black out.

Four years later Martin beats the odds and survives a cancer that is typically fatal. He returns to Randolph-Macon College as president and, for his final sabbatical, makes what he calls “a rather wacky decision” to enroll as a first-year student at St. John’s College, the Great Books school in Annapolis, Md.

Orientation is over, and I have just attended my first seminar, discussing Homer’s Iliad with 18 other freshmen and two tutors. I must now decide on an intramural activity, possibly something athletic. I find the crazy idea of racing in a boat with undergraduates curiously appealing. I’m not really sure why this is. I’m really something of an introvert, whose idea of fun is hanging out in a library. But as St. John’s president said in his convocation address, this is a time for new beginnings.

The next morning I drop by the gym to meet Mr. Pickens, the athletic director who seemed to be addressing me directly during orientation when he invited the freshmen to go out for a sport they had never done before. Mr. Pickens is also the crew coach.

Martin, second from left, held his own on crew even though his next oldest teammate was 42 years his junior.

Leo Pickens, or “Mr. P” as some of the students affectionately call him, is a slight man with a two-day growth of stubble on his hawklike face. After I introduce myself as a college president who is spending the next few months as a St. John’s freshman, he just nods his head. Mr. Pickens is a man of few words.

“What I would like to do,” I continue, “is to go out for crew and maybe row in an eight-man boat.” There is a long pause as he looks me up and down, probably wondering whether I am in my right mind.

“Very interesting, Roger,” he finally says. After another long pause he continues, “Maybe we can introduce you to rowing in a single scull. That way you don’t have to get up so early for practice.”

“No,” I insist, with uncharacteristic hubris. “I would prefer to row with a team. I’m trying to be a college student again, and being alone in a single scull will not do it for me.”

“OK,” Mr. Pickens says with a shrug, not quite sure what to do. “We’ll see how you work out. Be at the boathouse tomorrow by six.”

“Six in the morning?” I ask in disbelief.

“You heard me, six in the morning.” I think to myself, maybe I am crazy.

I am half asleep from staying up last night reading the first several chapters of Herodotus’ History, so while Mr. Pickens is lecturing us on the proper use of our oars, I am daydreaming.

One thing a freshman doesn’t want to have happen is to do something stupid that draws his or her classmates’ attention, like the woman who arrived in the wrong seminar room the first day of class. Well, it’s my turn this morning.

We have launched our eight-man shell, the Harriet Higgins Warren, into the inky darkness of College Creek and are idling about 200 feet from the dock. As we wait our turn to row under the King George Street Bridge, Isaac, the freshman rowing behind me, taps me on the shoulder and says, “Roger, you are rowing with the wrong blade.” Because I did not listen to Mr. Pickens’ lecture, I indeed picked up a hatchet blade designed for someone rowing on the starboard side of the boat. I row on the port side.

“Maia,” I say in a whisper to our cox, praying that none of the other boats will hear me, “I need a new oar.” Tortured groans are heard from my crewmates.

Martin endured a few late nights reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Plato’s Republic. Photo by: Bill Cardoni

“What did you say, Roger?” she blasts back over the cox box, the shell’s mini PA system.

“I have the wrong oar, Maia,” I respond, still whispering.

This early in the morning, the water is absolutely flat on College Creek, so even whispers can be heard by anyone within several hundred feet of our boat.

“What’s going on over there?” Mr. Pickens asks over the bullhorn he always carries with him.

“There shouldn’t be any talking in the boats.”

Maia yells back to Mr. Pickens, this time using cupped hands. “One of my team has the wrong oar.” I wish I could disappear.

Mr. Pickens, barely visible in the early dawn, yells back over the bullhorn, “Whose oar is it?” I cringe.

“Roger’s,” Maia responds. I’m dying.

Mr. Pickens proceeds to pick the correct oar off the dock and has climbed into his skiff. He doesn’t bother to start up the outboard motor. Instead, he is now standing on the prow of the skiff with the oar in both hands and, like a Venetian gondolier, he uses it to paddle the skiff slowly toward our boat, singing in Italian as he does it. “’O sole mio,” he warbles. My crewmates and everyone else on College Creek double over in laughter as we trade oars. My face has turned bright red, but fortunately it is concealed by the early morning darkness.

I have arrived at seminar 15 minutes early. As I stare at the empty table, I think about how happy I am to be here at St. John’s. In just two months, my metamorphosis from college president to freshman is almost complete, and I am finally enjoying myself. I’m enjoying being a member of crew. I’m enjoying reading the Great Books. I’m enjoying hanging out in the coffee shop and meeting students. I’ve attained nirvana.

While I am deep in these thoughts, my classmates have assembled around the table and we have begun a discussion of Plato’s cave in The Republic.

In the famous allegory, prisoners are seated in a single row looking at the wall of a mythical cave. Their heads are constrained so they can only look forward. Directly behind them is a raised roadway over which travel men carrying vessels and figures of animals made of wood and stone. Still further back in the cave, and slightly above the roadway, is a bonfire. When an object passes from one side of the roadway to the other, the light of the fire projects the object’s shadow onto the wall of the cave for the prisoners to see—the shadow, not the object itself. For these prisoners, then, the shadows are reality.

One of the prisoners is unshackled and set free. He can now turn around and see the objects passing on the roadway behind him. It takes time for him to realize that these objects, not the shadows he has been seeing all his life, are still a partial view of reality; even these objects are not the real thing.

Soon this prisoner is compelled to crawl out of the cave and into the world beyond. When he does this, he confronts blinding sunlight, which, for Plato, is the light of the good. At first the light is so intense he cannot see anything, but his eyes slowly adjust, and soon he is able to see true reality in front of him. The prisoner has been liberated.

He now thinks about his fellow prisoners. He is compelled to crawl back into the cave and lead them to the light. He has become a philosopher-king.

My mind goes back to the hospital room at Johns Hopkins where I first began receiving Interleukin II treatments. That room was also dark as a cave. I was constrained, only able to move my head. I remember eerie shadows cast on the white walls of my room with depressing regularity. These shadows included images of all the things I would no longer have should this terrible disease end my life. I would no longer be a person of stature and importance, no longer in control of the destiny of my college, no longer looked up to by the community. And what if I survived? These images weren’t much more hopeful. The specter of retirement loomed large on the wall of my cave, with everything that it suggested to me: boredom, malaise, apathy, physical inactivity, nothingness. It didn’t matter whether I lived or died. Scenarios for both were equally depressing.

But as I attend seminar this evening and reflect on the joy I have experienced here at St. John’s, Plato inspires me to wonder whether prestige, stature and power are really distorted mirages or, at best, only a partial view of reality? I wonder whether the St. John’s faculty—Professors Homer, Plato and Herodotus—have entered my own dark, gloomy cave? Did they lead me out of this cave so that I could see a different, perhaps more realistic, vision of beauty and truth?

An armada of eights pops into view, all just sitting around waiting to begin the final regatta of the season on the Occoquan Reservoir in northern Virginia. In the confusion of the moment it’s hard to tell who we will be racing against. But soon I recognize the painted oars of two boats. They are St. Mary’s College, the number 109 boat, who will leave right ahead of us, and the University of Maryland, number 111, who will leave just behind.

Almost as soon as we approach the starting line we are signaled by the head judge to take off. Maia has us start at a rate of 26 strokes per minute, and we are almost immediately off-kilter. The nervous energy that has been building up in these guys is released in one chaotic explosion. We will never win the race this way.

But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Only 30 seconds into the race I notice that my seat can roll only halfway down the slide, which means that I cannot completely extend my legs on the drive. There seems to be a mechanical problem, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Stay focused on Thom, our stroke, I think to myself. I begin repeating my mantra: “Watch Thom. Feather lightly. Watch Thom. Drop oar in water. Watch Thom. Thrust legs.”

I settle down and the other guys do as well. We are now rowing much better than we did at the start.

As we approach the first bend in the reservoir, Maia decides to pick up the pace. “In four, bring it up to 28,” she shouts. We do as she orders, but I’m getting really tired, and we haven’t even completed the first quarter of the race. Worse, I can see number 111, the University of Maryland, gaining on us.

Maia sees Maryland as well, and as we approach the second turn she brings the pace up to 30 strokes per minute and then almost immediately calls for a power 10. I’ll never make it at this rate, I am thinking to myself. Thirty is what we do at the Naval Academy seawall on the Severn River when we are finishing the race.

I’m now in a state of semi-consciousness. I wonder whether I will collapse as we round the third bend. No, I can’t let these guys down, I think. Don’t give up.

I can’t see the University of Maryland team anymore. Perhaps the power 10 Maia had us do a minute ago discouraged them. Just as I am recovering, she calls above the voices of the other coxes goading on their teams, telling us to increase our rate to 36 strokes per minute, something we have never done before. I’m pouring sweat, and my arms and legs are absolutely aching. For some reason I am thinking of Thucydides’ description in The Peloponnesian War of the Athenians and Syracusans rowing into battle with each other:

For on both sides there was more than ample exhortation and shouting on the part of the coxswains, both as part of their work and in the rivalry of the moment. As this imagery swirls through my feeble mind, I dig in as we round the last bend and head toward the finish.

“OK, guys, we’re at the Naval Academy seawall,” I hear Maia yelling, just as she always does when we are approaching the finish line on the Severn. We all know exactly what this means: We only have 500 meters to go. Miraculously, all of us get a third wind, and we row like we have never rowed before. I am rowing as hard as everyone else, accelerating my blade through the water on the drive to help give the boat extra speed.

I barely hear the shriek of a whistle, but we continue to row. We are all on automatic. “We’re over,” Maia yells. “We did it!” We all fall backward on one another like dominos, first Thom, then Robert, then all of us. We are spent. Done for. Totally exhausted. But at this moment I am praying, “Thank you, God, for keeping me going.”

I tap Isaac on his foot to congratulate him. He is stretched out prone in the bow. “Thanks, Roger,” he says, still out of breath. “You rowed really well today.” David then turns around and shakes my hand.

“Do you know who came in behind us?” I ask him, still gasping for breath. David doesn’t have a clue. “We held off number 111, the University of Maryland,” I say, “and that’s no small achievement.”

Our final time was 20 minutes, 30 seconds, putting us near the back of the pack, but hardly last. Maryland, even though they didn’t pass us, beat us by only six seconds. Meanwhile, we snookered several universities a whole lot larger than little St. John’s. Not bad for a motley crew of Johnnies.

But for me, this is my swan song. Never again will I compete in an intercollegiate athletic event. This will be a memory that lasts forever.

My victory on the Occoquan Reservoir was more than just a boat race for me. Four years before, I had been given the gift of life when I beat a deadly cancer. I now needed to prove to myself that I still had a future, that I wasn’t on a treadmill going nowhere. That even in my 60s I could grow into a different person. For me, then, Occoquan represented a victory over aging and the fear we all have that our lives will be over when we retire. I proved that, even in the evening of my life, I could go back to college and learn new things. That I could enjoy the company of men and women decades younger than myself and become a part of their community. That I could even row in a boat with eight teenagers. In short, I discovered that my life wasn’t winding down, as I thought it was when I was being treated at Johns Hopkins, but in many ways it was just beginning, with a refreshed sense of commitment and confidence in what I could be. I had been in Plato’s cave, unfocused and unsettled, seeing only the shadows of my previous life. I was ready to give up and die. But my freshman semester at St. John’s, culminating in this personal victory at Occoquan, allowed me to see a new light, a new reality, a new life.


Roger “Rusty” Martin remembers college the first time around.

Sitting-in at a Madison barbershop that refused to cut the hair of African Americans, a protest that landed many of us in jail.

Spray-painting the private parts of Francis Asbury’s horse Day-Glo red with Bob DeVeer C’65. President Oxnam could have bounced us out of college for this, but didn’t, an act of divine compassion. My best friend, as it turned out, became Drew’s director of admissions.

Playing rugby with captain Pita Ala’ilima C’64, the future economic minister of Western Samoa, and being coached by Alex Boraine G’69, whom Nelson Mandela would later appoint as deputy chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Believing that I was probably the least likely in my class to succeed. At graduation, my parents were just relieved that I was getting a degree, any degree. No one could have predicted, least of all myself, that I would end up becoming a college president. That this happened is, to a large degree, the result of the incredible education I received at Drew.


This article is adapted from Roger Martin’s book Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (University of California Press, 2008). Martin, who holds a D.Phil. from Oxford and an honorary degree from Drew, is a former president of Moravian College. He started a higher education consulting firm after retiring as president of Randolph-Macon College in 2006.

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