Tell Us Your Story: The Power of PerseveranceAug 31, 2021 05:25PM ● By Erica L. Shames
“You get to a stage in your life where you’re trying to put all the pieces together and decide where does this lead, now that I’m looking at a limited number of years.” – Leona (Nonie) Martin
If it’s true that youth is wasted on the young, no place is that more apparent than when mining life’s truths from the older generation. With age comes wisdom. And for Leona [Sayre] Martin (Nonie, as she is affectionately called), at least some of that wisdom has its roots in golf.
“Golf has been a very crucial thing in my life,” she recounts. “When I had a stroke a few years ago, there were two things I kept thinking about: will I be able to play golf and will I be able to teach with BILL [Bucknell Institute for Lifelong Learning].”
Begging to play
Nonie, 83, was an athletic child—a tomboy in fact. Her father, Gloe Sayre, played golf. Nonie appreciated his dedication to the game and sought to emulate it.
“I can still remember being in the pro shop with my dad—in Norristown, at the Plymouth Country Club—and begging him to let me start playing,” Nonie recalls. “I was 10. He said, ‘No, I think you’re a bit too young.’”
At 11, Nonie started to play with caddies.
“Monday was Caddy Day,” she said. “They were always around, ready to help. I tagged along and learned from them.”
Years later, Nonie attended Norristown High School, where the golf team was all-male. “At the time, girls just didn’t play golf,” she said. “I was very fortunate. My dad was director of the Grounds Committee at the country club, [where the team played]. Somehow he was able to convince the coach that I could play for the boys team.”
Nonie earned the number one spot on the team—an impressive feat, given she teed off from the men’s tees.
“I didn’t feel like a star,” she recalls, “because I wasn’t treated like a star. I didn’t view it as sexist; it was just the way it was.”
Nonie won the Philadelphia Women’s Junior Tournament four years in a row, and went on to earn the state championship title. “It was not a big thing,” she says. “My dad, however, was so proud.”
And then something else
In the 1950s, the concept of going to college to play a sport wasn’t in vogue. “When I was accepted at Wellesley, there was a general feeling that I couldn’t possibly go any other place, despite the fact they didn’t have a golf team,” she said.
At Wellesley College—she was in Madeline Albright’s 1959 graduating class—Nonie discovered a passion for Hispanic language and culture. “I will never regret attending Wellesley,” she says.
After graduation, Nonie earned a Fulbright Scholarship to work in Bogota, Columbia. She stayed for three years and worked for the Columbian government in agricultural extension home economics, teaching women how to cook. There she met her future husband, Heinrich Martin, who was studying to become a Doctor of Veterinary medicine. They married in 1961.
“There was a whole period in my life when I didn’t play much golf,” said Nonie. “My husband’s professional interests started to impact my life. That led to graduate work for both of us at Michigan State.” The couple lived in Mexico for a year and a half, and moved back to the U.S. in 1969.
In the back seat
Heinrich worked with a veterinarian group in Chester County, Pa., before deciding to open his own practice. “Many of his clients were Mennonites,” Nonie recalls. “Some of them had moved to the Lewisburg area and urged him to follow. In 1981, we moved to Lewisburg.”
Golf was very much in the back seat until the couple joined the Bucknell Golf Club. “I started to play golf again,” she said. Nonie won the Women’s Club Championship and regional tournaments.
Professionally, Nonie was hired to teach Spanish at Bucknell University while she worked on her dissertation. Starting in 1986, PhD in hand, Nonie taught Spanish and culture at Susquehanna University. “It was very important to me that students experience reality,” said Nonie. “I focused on service learning and developing projects in the community.”
Those ventures included working in schools with newly arrived Spanish-speaking students and connecting with community service organizations.
Correspondingly, Nonie served many years as a Prisoner Visitation and Support volunteer where she interacted with Spanish-speaking inmates at the Lewisburg Penitentiary. She founded and directed the Annual Latino Symposium at SU, which explores the history, culture and politics of Latin America.
And then it happened
In 2012, Nonie started teaching for BILL, including courses on Latin American women and Spanish language and culture. When Nonie retired from SU in 2014, golf took on more importance in her life until 2018 when she suffered a mild stroke. Ever the stalwart, Nonie didn’t want her two children Alexander and Patricia to know.
“I was in the hospital for two days,” said Nonie. “Then Martha and Chuck Root took me in. As soon as my son found out about the stroke, he whisked me away.”
Martha escorted Nonie to two months of physical therapy. “When I first started back to golf, I couldn’t even swing the club,” she said. “I kept at it and found golf was one thing I could still do—and it was therapeutic. The difficult thing is focus and concentration. I’ve worked hard to build those skills.”
Nonie estimates she is at 60 to 70 percent of her capability. “I can still drive the ball, but stamina has been lost. Some of that is a function of age.”
Nonie could easily have given up on golf—and life—but she persevered. “Golf has given me a goal, something to shoot for,” she said.
Nonie has a bevy of admirers among the women she golfs with. “Noni is the perfect golf companion,” said Mary Eve Zangari. “She welcomes new golfers, praising good shots while ignoring bad ones. She will play in rain, cold and snow, walking all the way. And she shoots her age or lower, giving us all hope for improvement.”
I can personally attest to Nonie’s fortitude, gumption and hard work. She is a heroine and role model. She is a testament to what we can accomplish when we really try.
I see myself in Nonie. I can appreciate her enthusiasm for golf and all it has taught her about life. Nonie still shoots an impressive game and strives to be the best she can be. And that’s something we all can learn from.
Story and photographs by Erica L. Shames