One on One: My brother’s mountain cabin

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, April 21, 2024

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By D.G. Martin

A few days ago, with my wife and family, I drove along I-77 up into Virginia and turned west on I-81 driving alongside large, luscious, spring green pastures towards historic Abingdon, home of the Barter Theater. From there we made our way to the Washington Springs United Methodist Church in Glade Spring from where my late brother Mike made his home for many years. Gathered there was a large group of friends Mike had made when he lived nearby.

Earlier, Mike had been a star basketball player, and president of the student body at North Mecklenburg High School. He was the best shooter on the basketball team at Davidson College where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a master’s degree in history from Duke University.

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He seemed to have an open door to a successful career in scholarship or teaching.

What led him instead in another direction? Our sister’s husband, Joe Howell, wrote, “His cabin, situated on a 20-acre wooded parcel which was given to him by a friend, had no legal access, no running water, and no electricity. While his children were able to visit on holidays and summers, he was living the life of a focused and solitary artist. During these years living in the cabin, he established deep friendships with people living in the valley and wrote some of his best poetry and prose about their lives, hardships, hopes and dreams. He was known to them as James taken from his first two initials J.M.”

Mike had changed from academic scholar to artist and poet. The isolated mountain land and the mountain people who became his friends inspired him.

The “friend” who gave him the property was Bob Porterfield, the founder and owner of the Barter Theater in Abingdon. During the Depression, Porterfield persuaded aspiring actors to work for food from farmers who had traded their farm products for theatre tickets. He also gave some of the actors an acre of local mountain land as a souvenir of their time at the Barter.

When Porterfield had a problem with the land title, Mike helped him work it out, and Porterfield gave Mike, in return, the land where he built his cabin.

Joe Howell continues, “When Mike became older, in his late 50s, he came down from the mountain and moved into the lake house his parents had built on Lake Norman, near Davidson, where his interest turned more to painting, drawing and photography. He swam laps almost every day in Lake Norman, weather permitting, and loved his devoted companion, Shadow, a stray black lab that he adopted. Mike was married twice – to two beautiful and brilliant women – and thereafter had several other deeply significant romantic partnerships. By his first wife, Martine (who lives in France), he produced two talented and brilliant children, Noah (now ‘Alex’) and Eva. His second wife and close friend, Carla, drove a thousand miles with her new partner to visit Mike the week before he died.

“For the last five years of his life, he lived in the Washington area. When visiting his daughter, grandchildren, and son in March 2018, Mike came down with a life- threatening infection, which resulted in a week in the hospital and another three weeks in rehabilitation at a local nursing home. Following his illness, he was not able to drive or return to the cabin though for a long time he remained hopeful he would. For a year, he lived in our daughter Jessica’s basement apartment in a close-in suburb of Washington.”

As Mike’s health deteriorated, Joe found other places to care for him.

“In July 2019, we helped Mike move to Saint Mary’s Court, a HUD seniors’ housing building, where I have served on the board for years and helped develop. He lived there for several years and made many friends, before finally, in early 2023 moving to the Hebrew Home in Maryland where for his caregivers he was the beloved ‘Mr. Jack.’

“As Mike aged, his sense of humor and concern for others seemed to grow stronger.”

Thanks to his children, Mike’s work lives on through a website at Despite his ostensibly remote lifestyle, my reclusive brother quietly but strongly maintained a commitment to make the world better through his work.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.