Clara Martin’s daughters Mary Helen Martin, WC ’84, Elizabeth Martin Carpenter, WC ’80, and Dorothy “Dottie” Martin Corey, WC ’78, with Martin at the Reunion Weekend celebration of her Brenau legacy. Like other Martin students, they admit their mom’s edict against students’ turning in papers with errors made them better writers and reporters. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

‘Matchmaker’ Clara Martin Created Job-oriented Student Experiences

With steely resolve and nurturing spirit, Clara Martin left a triad of indelible marks on the Brenau landscape and the professional psyches of a generation of students. On top of that, she was a pretty good matchmaker.

In three decades at Brenau, she birthed a robust mass communications program and public radio station, both which celebrate 40th anniversaries this year. However, Martin quickly points out that her proudest accomplishment is preparing students for successful journalism and communications careers.

Martin, who earned two journalism degrees from the University of Georgia, became Brenau special projects director in 1971. The liberal arts school needed some career-oriented programs, and journalism seemed a likely track. “I thought, ‘What could be more natural?’ Since women are usually good writers and use the English language well, they probably would be good communicators,” Martin says. “So I made the proposal and it was accepted. But, of course, we had to find some students first, so I had to teach some freshman English and sell the idea.”

Forever GoldMartin, who also had some broadcasting and newspaper experience, teamed with colleague Jim Bridwell to build a radio station. Starting with a pickup truck full of scavenged radio equipment, they cobbled together on the third floor of Pearce Auditorium what would become 89.1 WBCX-FM, “The Voice of Brenau.” Initially, the station “broadcast” over a low-power wired system, like an intercom, only on the Gainesville campus. However, within a few months, it received a Federal Communications System noncommercial educational license for a 10-watt signal that enabled it to go out over the airwaves in the community close to the campus.

In 1980, the station moved to a renovated building with a new control room and production studio. That attracted 28 Women’s College students to staff the station, which the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System dubbed the “only radio station in the world operated by females only.”

WBCX reached Class A status in 1985, which meant that it could operate its 1,000-watt broadcast 24 hours a day broadcasting to a 10-county Northeast Georgia area. In 1995, the station moved to its current home in the John W. Jacobs Jr. Business and Communication Arts Building. where it added satellite-delivered programming, like the BBC America daily news listeners now enjoy, a computer-based “robot radio” capability that automates many broadcast functions of the 24/7 year-round station.

‘We graduated a lot of good writers. The feedback we got from people who hired them was that they were very well prepared to be editors.’

Although Martin knew that WBCX never could have “all the gorgeous equipment and the latest gizmos” that larger university stations might have, she built the Brenau program with a great differentiator. “We could at least have students who knew how to write correctly and write well,” Martin said. “And we did. We graduated a lot of good writers. The feedback we got from people who hired them was that they were very well prepared to be editors.”

For the students who studied under Clara, those skills were hard earned. As a journalism student herself, Clara encountered a professor who gave her an F on her first essay because of a comma splice – the only error in the paper. “That taught me a lesson to not turn in a paper if there is an error, and I tried to pass that lesson on to my students,” she said. “In the writing classes, I would not give a grade to a paper with an error, and if you had a paper without an error, I graded you on the quality of your writing.”

Clara Martin takes part in an interview at WBCX, the radio station she helped establish at Brenau.
Clara Martin takes part in an interview at WBCX, the radio station she helped establish at Brenau.

B.J. Richardson Williams, WC ’82, gives Martin credit for preparing her. “Clara had confidence in me when I didn’t have confidence in myself,” says Williams, who is now the top news executive for Jacobs Media in Gainesville. “Clara expected excellence from her students, but she nurtured us, too. She challenged us, but she was kind when she had to correct us. I’ve had a great career in radio broadcasting and I know it started in a Brenau classroom with Clara Martin.”

Martin’s three daughters – Dorothy “Dottie” Martin Corey, WC ’78, Elizabeth Martin Carpenter, WC ’80, and Mary Helen Martin, WC ’84 – studied newswriting and reporting in their mom’s classes. “They thought I was harder on them because they were my daughters,” Martin recalls. “But actually I was hard on everybody.”

Martin’s students bear witness to that assertion. “Clara Martin taught me to write,” says Lee Anne Romberg White, WC ’82, renowned author and photographer. “She did so with kindness, patience and a fierce red pencil. I’ve spent much of my career as a writer and editor, and I have her to thank for that.”

‘Clara Martin taught me to write. She did so with kindness, patience and a fierce red pencil. I’ve spent much of my career as a writer and editor, and I have her to thank for that.’

Olivia Varnson served as student manager of 98.1 WBCX until her 2016 graduation. She was the recipient of the scholarship named for the station’s founder, Clara Martin. Varnson currently works in commercial radio. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Olivia Varnson served as student manager of 98.1 WBCX until her 2016 graduation. She was the recipient of the scholarship named for the station’s founder, Clara Martin. Read more about her story in CLARA MARTIN SCHOLAR: OLIVIA VARNSON.

The end game for her academic vision also came constantly into play. Martin knew the hallmark of a truly great program was matching students with jobs in the journalism. She formed advisory committees of top journalists and broadcasters and got many of them to come to campus. When word got out that entrepreneur Ted Turner would launch an Atlanta-based global news network, Martin bit in like a pit bull to get her students engaged. “I spent probably as much time trying to develop contacts we could use to find jobs for our graduates as I did in teaching because the results are what count.” That definitely paid off at CNN. At one point four of the five summer college interns there were Martin disciples and several Brenau students enjoyed successful careers at the network.

Now about that matchmaker thing: Martin’s friend, colleague and confirmed bachelor media entrepreneur John Jacobs (who holds the record for length of service as a Brenau trustee) planned a European trip aboard the famed Queen Mary. She set him up on a blind date with another friend, Martha Rand, who was also on that voyage. Not only were John and Martha married for 53 years, but their son, Jay, married another Martin pupil who worked as an intern in the family business, Anna Alexander Jacobs, WC ’86., who took her father-in-law’s Brenau board seat after he died in 2011. And Romberg White credits Martin for introducing her to her future husband Alan at an advertising club meeting. They were married the following year.

Martin retired in 2000. However, she signed over one of her Brenau paychecks to Brenau to establish the Clara Martin Endowed Scholarship for students interested in journalism.

“From my career in higher education, one very important fact emerges: great universities are built and sustained by great professors,” said Brenau President Ed Schrader. “Clara Martin is this fact incarnate. We owe a debt of gratitude to Clara for establishing both the mass communications program and WBCX. Neither would exist without Clara’s entrepreneurial spirit, high standards of excellence and dogged determination. She has indeed impacted numerous lives of students through investing her life’s work in the service of others and that impact will continue through the Clara Martin Endowed Scholarship.”

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