Ex-symphony chief remembered as 'sweetest person'

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WALLA WALLA — Russ Martin died in the city where he most loved to live, say those who knew him.

Russell E. Martin, 56, died Wednesday three months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to his wife, Penni Martin, in an email sent out to dozens of her husband’s friends and associates late Wednesday evening.

The number of addresses in Russ’s contact list is indicative of the kind of person he was. “He was so loved by everybody in the community. Not just the symphony,” noted Sharon Thompson, who worked alongside Martin at the Walla Walla Symphony for four years.

He was born April 28, 1956, in Oregon City, Ore., to Eugene and Donna Olson Martin.

Martin was hired as the executive director for the organization at a time its board had deemed it prudent to add a patina of professionalism, explained Dr. Richard Simon, who served on the symphony’s board for most of the time Martin headed it. “Russ was the first full-time, paid executive director.’

Martin had answered the “help wanted” call from the Seattle area, where he had a career as a record producer, Thompson recalled. “He was all about music, before he ever arrived here. He stepped from rock into classical music and he loved it. He loved the symphony and we loved him back.”

It took courage to step into the job, however. “Russ had a steep learning curve when it came to nonprofits,” Simon pointed out. “But he was probably the sweetest person you could ever meet in your life.”

As well, it was the year of 9/11 and many agencies found their fundraising taking a sharp nose dive, meaning the new executive director had to weather those problems before he ever really got his feet wet, Simon added. “He had a lot of guts, he had some great ideas. And he believed in local art, local wine. He believed in Walla Walla.”

And was determined to be here, friends said today. After leaving the Walla Walla Symphony in 2005 — he also served in a number of community roles during that period, working with Green Park Elementary School and Pioneer Middle School — Martin pursued higher education to equip himself better to work in the nonprofit world, Simon said, finishing with a master’s degree in business from Gonzaga University.

He worked elsewhere, including Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Helena, Mont., but this town was his beacon, said Hans Matschukat, who called Martin his “best friend” today.

Martin fulfilled his desire to return to Walla Walla when he took an appointment at the Sustainable Living Center in July, to head the organization dedicated to renewable energy and conservation. He jumped in with “incredible” vision, drive and dedication, Matschukat said. “The Walla Walla Symphony is his legacy, but the Sustainable Living Center would have been. He had dreams for it. He was going to put this thing on the map.”

Although Martin’s cancer had metastasized to his many parts of his body, including his brain, he worked up until his last days, making calls and doing business, Matschukat said. “He was at it until the very last minute.”

That was as her husband wanted — he refused to let his illness get in the way of living and was determined to leave behind a legacy to be proud of, Penni Martin noted in her email.

There will be a private service for Russ Martin in Walla Walla and a memorial service for all is planned in Seattle in February.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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