For years, he and I stood on the platform waiting for the 6:07 a.m. train to Grand Central Terminal. We'd nod a polite hello, but never spoke. He was about 6 feet tall, wore a trench coat and fedora, and carried a leather briefcase. He looked like a judge, and I thought he appeared stern but kindly, exuding a sort of judicial wisdom.
One frigid morning about three years ago, for reasons I still don't understand, I introduced myself -- right on the train platform. His name was Martin Isler. And when the train came, we sat next to each other. We talked about our lives, and he modestly said that while he ran a business with his two sons, he was a sculptor who carved life-sized marble figures using tools employed by the ancients. His methods were as old as art itself. He took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of a piece called "Neck Offering." It was a mesmerizing white marble figure of a woman's head and neck.
A week later, my wife and I visited Marty and met his lovely wife Natalie, at their home. We purchased "Neck Offering," which now sits on a pedestal in our dining room. I marvel at the beauty of her curved neck, flowing tresses and exquisite features.
Over time, I learned a great deal about Marty. He graduated from a trade school in the Bronx, intending to become an electrician. But WWII was raging, and as a proud American, he joined the army, wanting to fight the Nazi scourge. An intelligence test was administered, and he scored so highly, the U.S. Army sent him to Cornell rather than the front. Abhorring school and wanting to fight, he left college and was swiftly dispatched to the Pacific theatre, where he fought as a rifleman in the Philippine campaign.
After the war, he became a draftsman, started his own business, married and had two sons. Always possessing an insatiable curiosity, Marty discovered in himself a love of the ancients, especially Egyptology. Juggling the demands of family and business, this trade school graduate became a self-taught scholar in the field, and did so in mid-life. He theorized how the ancients moved huge blocks of stone to build the pyramids, and how obelisks were raised. He wrote many papers that were published in the most prestigious scholarly journals, and his book, Sticks, Stones & Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press when he was 75 years old. He appeared on television's NOVA series, where he demonstrated his theories, and continued sculpting life-size marble figures, employing the tools of antiquity.
At the time we were getting acquainted, I was in my mid-60s. I wondered if I'd ever encountered anyone whose unquenchable thirst for knowledge and commitment to living life so purposefully approached Marty's.
Well into his 80s, this modest man was still sculpting, writing monographs and filled with life, and had the most robust laugh I'd ever heard.
This autodidact and remarkable man: writer, scholar, draftsman, sculptor, businessman, husband and father, showed me that creativity and intellectual curiosity will always find an avenue of expression if you are courageous enough to plunge into life without excuses.
Marty Isler died last week while writing his memoirs. As he neared the end, we visited one last time. Sitting in his library, knowing death was close, with a hint of adventure in his voice, Marty said: "Well, I'm learning about death. After all, I've never done this before."
We usually think of role models as those we admire and wish to emulate in our youth. I found mine as I approached 70 years of age. Marty taught we how best to live the rest of my life.