Brenau University graduates and Jesse Jewel scholarship recipients the Martin Sisters (L-R) Carolyn West, Regina McNeal,Colene Martin, Mary Lou Nix and Martha Tanner pose for a photo. (William Lofton for Brenau University)

Sisters: How One Scholarship Transformed a Family

Among 10 children in the family, the five Martin sisters didn’t think college was a possibility when they were picking cotton or tending chickens on their farm near Gainesville, Georgia.

That all changed, however, when one of their friends began to encourage Carolyn Martin West to further her education and get into teaching. Bobbie Carpenter Foster was teaching at Chestatee Elementary School in Forsyth County and stayed with the Martins across the road from the school. Though having only a high school diploma, Carolyn had substituted some at Chestatee and learned to love teaching. Foster encouraged her to pursue a college education.

The Martins had no money for college. Carolyn’s father, Edward Martin, in addition to farming, tuned pianos, taught singing at schools and played the piano for three of his daughters who sang as the Martin Sisters. As he tuned pianos for Brenau College, Edward Martin came to know Josiah Crudup, college president. Crudup told Martin about the Jesse D. Jewell Scholarship program, and Carolyn became the first of the sisters to apply for one.

Jewell, whose name is also on one of the major thoroughfares in the Northeast Georgia city, created the eponymous scholarship when he was a member of the Brenau Board of Trustees for more than 20 years, four years as chairman, then became a trustee emeritus in 1970. Five years later, Jewell died at age 72.

Jewell is considered the founder of the modern poultry industry in the region because of his innovative methods of processing and marketing chickens and his promotion of the industry. He held the highest offices in state and national poultry organizations and was a leader in numerous civic endeavors. He was also a staunch advocate for education at all levels. He created the scholarship program at Brenau to make transformative college experiences available for young people in the region, like the Martin sisters, who otherwise would have never darkened the door of a college or university.

Not only was Carolyn Martin the first of her sisters to go to college, she was also the first of the five to graduate from Brenau. She earned a degree in piano and voice in 1956. Her husband, the Rev. Robert West, became a minister, and she taught school wherever the ministry took him.

Carolyn inspired her sisters to apply for the Jewell scholarship as well. All of them eventually earned one and graduated. In turn, the sisters went on to make an impact on thousands of people’s lives through their education at Brenau.

Mary Lou Martin Nix, next to the youngest of the sisters, graduated with a degree in drama and home economics in 1961. Her husband, Benny Nix, was pastor at Union Baptist Church near Blairsville. Every Sunday the Nixes would get their three children up early for the drive over the mountain to church from their Hall County home, often remaining until after the night service before driving back home.

Mary Lou has been choir director for the church for 53 years and has kept children in her home almost as long.

Growing up on the farm, she didn’t think college was an option. “It was very hard work,” she said about the farm. “You didn’t have time to get into meanness.”

Regina Martin McNeal majored in education and taught at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School in Hall County in the same building for 38 years.

Colene Martin studied music at Brenau, graduating with a degree in piano and organ. She’s been teaching piano ever since, with hundreds of students learning to play under her tutelage for more than 65 years.

“A lot of times, I’d teach from daylight to dark,” she said.

College wasn’t even a dream for Colene while she was doing chores on the farm. But when her sisters, Regina and Carolyn, earned their J.D. Jewell scholarships to Brenau, she applied after graduating from Chestatee High School. “I was the one that wanted one (scholarship) the worst and didn’t think I’d get it,” she said.

Martha Jane Martin Tanner, the youngest, almost didn’t get a scholarship. The program had run its course and run out of money. However, Robert West, Carolyn’s husband, knew Charlie Thurmond, a Jewell executive, and talked him into re-opening the program for the last sister.

Martha Jane went on to teach for 45 years in the Hall County School System.

Carolyn was the first to finish Brenau, graduating in 1956. Regina was next in 1958, then Colene, ’59, Mary Lou, ’61, and finally Martha Jane, ’65.

The Jewell Scholarships were awarded in the 1950s and ’60s, providing more than 100 students a college education. Five of them happened to be in one family.

The Martin sisters’ children and grandchildren also have made names for themselves in government, education, business and private life.

“Certainly, one scholarship [program] made a huge difference in the lives of these girls,” says Robert West. “But where it has made a real difference is in the lives of others that they have touched and influenced greatly in schools and churches and all of their community activities. And that is really huge.”


Johnny Vardeman is a retired newspaper editor in Gainesville, Georgia. He is married to Margaret Ellsworth (Peggy) Vardeman, WC ’57.

One Response to “Sisters: How One Scholarship Transformed a Family”
  1. Deborah Kroll says:

    Jesse Jewell was my grandfather. I am so proud of his legacy! In addition, his mother taught art at Brenau in the 1890s, and his sisters and stepsisters attended Brenau. His eldest daughter (my mother), Patricia Jewell Prince, attended Brenau in the late 1940s. His youngest daughter, Janet Jewell Orlandella, was head of the Department of Humanities in the 1960s. I graduated from Brenau in 1973 with a degree in History. My sister graduated from Brenau a few years later. Even our aunt and cousin on our father’s side attended Brenau. I taught at Brenau Academy for 15 years. Quite a family connection!

You must be logged in to post a comment.