Joan Marie Martin passed away February 22, 2020 at her daughter’s home in Scottsdale, Ariz. They had enjoyed a very special celebration of her 85th birthday last summer in Chicago, and had been looking so forward to their move to Arizona.
She was born in Truro, Iowa, on June 18, 1934, to A.J. and Cecilia Daniel Smith, and was raised in Harper, Iowa, where her father was a foreman for Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America. Joan and her sister, Jean, were just 15 months apart and raised almost as twins, with matching everything and an incredible bond that would last their entire lives.
After graduating from St. Elizabeth School in Harper, Joan worked as a secretary at Keokuk County Courthouse and later at Sigourney Hospital. She married Richard A. Martin on June 25, 1955 at St. Elizabeth Church in Harper, beginning what would be an inseparable 59 ½-year life together.
Just two years later, the young couple took a courageous step, moving across the state to purchase Martin Funeral Home in Emmetsburg, Iowa, from JJ and Anna Martin (an elderly couple who ironically were of no relation). Dick and Joan worked very hard to build trust and relationships in the local community and among the clergy. The Martins believed that each death should be treated with the utmost dignity and were devoted to serving families with compassion during what was often their darkest moments. They were entrusted with loved ones ranging from infants to centenarians.
In 1977 they acquired a funeral home in Ruthven, Iowa, and expanded their services to families in that neighboring community. For more than 40 years, Joan actively participated in local civic and charitable organizations, including volunteer work with the hospital, nursing homes, Girl Scouts, and the St. Thomas and Assumption Catholic Community.
After their marriage, she and Dick had tried for eight years to have a child and despite suffering a number of miscarriages, they never gave up hope. So when Mary Joan was born, she became their world — and remained so throughout her parents’ lives. They called themselves “The Martin 3.” Dick and Joan were actively involved in Mary Jo’s life as a student, rarely missed a choir or band performance, and cheered on her and her teammates at nearly every golf meet and tournament.
They were dedicated to giving Mary Jo opportunities to see, learn about and experience things they had not. So when she was five, they began an annual summer vacation tradition of driving across America. By the time she graduated from high school, The Martin 3 had visited all 48 continental states, Canada and Mexico. Their support helped Mary Jo tremendously as she built her career with the solid fundamentals of hard work and integrity that her parents had always stressed. They were always her “first phone call,” and were so excited at any news she could share.
At just 5 feet tall, Joan was petite and full of grace. She dressed modestly and always appropriately, had an appreciation for pretty colors and sentimental treasures, enjoyed the smooth sounds of big bands and TV musicals with entertainers like Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Fred Astaire. Joan kept an immaculate and inviting home and enjoyed decorating for holidays throughout the year. She stayed fit throughout her life by eating healthy (including dark chocolate treats!), walking every day, and being actively engaged with friends and family. Even her perfectly-cursive handwriting was tiny and delicate.
She was warm and kind, and quickly made friends throughout their life in Emmetsburg and West Des Moines, Iowa, Plano, Texas, and during 17 winters in Scottsdale. Joan always tried to make those around her feel special, and especially adored some of the young children who would regularly sit near she and Dick at Masses.
Joan’s small stature and soft-spoken nature belied her remarkable courage and seemingly endless inner strength. Together, her qualities were the ideal combination for her calling as a caregiver.
She was an extraordinarily loyal daughter to her parents, first helping care for her father who suffered from serious health issues for over a decade in the 1960s-70s, and then for her mother who was widowed for nearly 30 years until her death at 97.
In the mid-1990s during one of their winters in Arizona, Dick was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and Joan stood hand in hand with him as he successfully battled and beat it. That event was the start of her “Dickens Village” collection; Dick surprised her with several pieces to cheer her up while he was undergoing treatment. They got so much joy from putting up their villages, trees, skaters and carriages each year. Over time, those first few pieces grew into a collection of hundreds — which was so meaningful because it signified Dick’s continued good health.
In her late 50s, Joan began experiencing symptoms of macular degeneration, which increasingly limited her vision over the remainder of her life. Concerned about the safety of others, she stopped driving in 2005 and happily moved to the passenger seat. That was challenging when Dick became seriously ill in 2014. She insisted on caring for him by herself at home, except during short-term hospital and recovery center stays. No matter what, she found a way to be with him every day, accepting rides from very thoughtful neighbors and church friends who would drop her off before breakfast and pick her up again after dinner.
After Dick passed away on December 26, 2014, she again demonstrated great courage, living alone for the first time in her life at their home in West Des Moines. After a year, she moved to an assisted living facility in Sigourney, but her sister’s husband passed away soon afterwards, and she moved to the Chicago area so she could live just down the hall from Jean at Addolorata Villa. The two thoroughly enjoyed the last three years, spending time together every day. Each had abilities that complemented the other beautifully. Joan was exceptionally mobile and would whiz up and down the halls bringing Jean coffee and donuts in the morning and getting her mail in the afternoon. Jean was confined to a wheelchair but had a keen mind so she helped manage Joan’s important paperwork and tracked her appointments and activities. Joan also spent much of her time helping other residents with various tasks and was recognized with volunteer awards multiple times.
Joan was a woman of incredible faith. She attended Daily Mass for many years, regularly made the Stations of the Cross, had a beautiful collection of rosaries — many of which had been gifts from treasured friends — and spent several hours each day in private prayer for her loved ones and anyone who needed a boost. She had a special fondness for the Blessed Virgin and her beautiful soprano voice was perfect for singing Ave Maria. Everywhere she traveled, Joan would find local churches, shrines and missions to visit, usually with empty baby food jars in her purse that she would fill with holy water from the fonts. Joan would use masking tape to hand label each jar with the year and location, and made sure that all of her loved ones had an ever-present supply on hand.
She began showing signs of dementia during the past decade, but did her best to mask it by keeping copious notes in virtually every square of her wall calendar and on little yellow post-it notes throughout her house. These notes included recollections of special or significant moments that had happened, as well as reminders about her to-dos, things to look forward to, and people to contact. Despite her challenges, Joan always had a sunny demeanor with a smile that lit up a room and kind words for everyone she came in contact with. Her concern was always about her loved ones rather than herself.
For the last year, she and her daughter had been planning a move together to Scottsdale, where Joan and Dick had made so many memories with wonderful friends. Joan had been very active and able to care for herself until she fell early last summer. She suffered broken bones in her foot and tried very hard during physical therapy to walk again. She had been slowly improving until additional falls confined her to a wheelchair. However, she and Mary Jo were looking so forward to enjoying their life ahead in Arizona and spending time with special friends who live nearby.
On December 22, Joan came to live with Mary Jo at their new home in Scottsdale. They enjoyed two wonderful months together with the help of dedicated caregivers and an in-home hospice team — along with the happy faces and wagging tails of furry companions Bubbles and JoJo. Unfortunately, the injuries Joan sustained from those falls had weakened her body too much and she ultimately was not able to recover. As always though, Joan woke with a smile and warm greeting for her helpers, and expressed gratitude for every kindness she received. Even during her final week as her body and speech failed, her spirit continued to shine and her radiant smile communicated her joy and love with her daughter and all who visited or called.
Joan is survived by her daughter Mary Jo; sister Jean Smith Gaertner; niece Senta and her husband Andy Plunkett and their children Eleanor, Matthew and Brennan; cherished cousins and extended family; godchildren Chuck Needham, David Spies, Drew Lewis, Julie Wrage; and many dear friends from across the United States.
Mary Jo will also be hosting a memorial reception for Joan on Saturday, February 29, 2020 from 2:00-4:00 at Martin-Mattice Funeral Home in Emmetsburg, which she and Dick had originally designed and built in the late 1970s. All are welcome to attend.
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