Mort Mather

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Mort Mather BiographyPhotograph of Mort Mather by B.A. King

Morton King Mather was born in Manhattan, raised on a farm in New Jersey, tossed about in the North Atlantic on a Coast Guard weather cutter for three years, was graduate in theater from the University of Wisconsin, stage managed professional theatre when there were stars, managed a nightclub, farmed, was president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in its early years, founder of two successful non-profits, fund raiser, consultant, philosopher, writer, speaker, restauranteur and organic farmer. That is his response when asked "What did you do before this?" If you want to know more about any phase of his life, keep reading.

 

Farm

While A Stone's Throw is largely fiction, Orvie and I grew up on the same farm in the 40s.

My life took on a new dimension with the arrival of a foster brother, Dinky, who was a couple of years older, and his sister, Sandy who was a couple of years younger than I. I suddenly found that I was not the only one who got to lick the cake mixing bowl. "First dibs!" "Second dibs!" "What’s dibs?" A couple of years later their mother remarried and they went back to her leaving me alone again. A year later my father left giving as his reason that he didn’t love my mother or me any more. An interesting thing to tell a thirteen-year-old. I suspect it has had an influence on my life.

 

Coast Guard

I probably came the closest to death in the North Atlantic when our ship took a 50 foot wave broadside. I was radio operator and on watch at the time. I had been on the ship for a couple of years and knew her moves. This was different. We rolled over almost 90 degrees. When the ship rolls it pauses for a moment and then rolls back the other way. This time it just hung there. I’ll never forget the look on McGinnley’s face when I turned to him and ask, "Are we coming back?" We just stared at each other waiting for the ship to start back. "I don’t know," he replied. Well, we did and then went nearly as far the other way. A wave had washed over us sweeping away two life boats, our gangway, a life vest locker that was welded to the deck and damaging the ships structure. We shipped water down the stack.

As a radio operator in the Coast Guard I had advanced six pay grades in my four years because there was a shortage of radio operators. Out in the real world there was a shortage of engineers so, at Trenton Junior College, I carried 19 credits including physics and calculus. However my real love was theatre. While in high school I worked summers at the Lambertville Music Circus. I figured I’d major in engineering and participate in theatre on the side. Upon learning that engineering in college leaves no time for anything on the side I applied to the speech department at the University of Wisconsin.

 

Wisconsin

I’m not sure why, exactly, I chose Wisconsin because there may be three reasons. I heard they had a good theater department. They also went to the Rose Bowl when I was making my decision. The third possible influence was an article in some men’s magazine, Real Men or Stag or something like that titled "Those Vanishing Virgins on College Campuses". It began "There is a seated statue of Lincoln on the campus of the University of Wisconsin and the saying goes that he stands every time a virgin passes by."

I am fond of saying that I majored in survey courses. The best way to use the credits I transferred from Trenton Jr. College was to take another semester of physics and calculus. I credit calculus with being a big help in thinking logically. My goal was to become a director and courses in directing and acting were helpful in learning to think emphatically. I took physical geography and an art history course because friends told me the professors were excellent. I took several philosophy courses because they sounded interesting. I took music appreciation because I thought it would be a good idea to understand music better—nearly flunked but I guess I learned enough to help me stage manage New York Pro Musica’s medieval plays and the Joffrey Ballet. And though I spent many enjoyable hours sitting next to Lincoln, I never saw him stand.

 

Stage manager

I became a member of Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union my first summer out of the Coast Guard when I was hired as assistant stage manager. My first job as stage manager came at the end of the season three years later when the stage manager that season, Delmar Hendricks, very generously gave me the opportunity by giving up an extra week of employment when Springtime for Henry staring Edward Everett Horton was added onto the Music Circus season. I stage managed the Melody Tops in Chicago and Milwaukee. I designed the lights for all the shows at Mill Run in Niles, IL opening with Charlton Heston and closing less than a year later with Van Johnson. By that time I was also the stage manager and designed some sets. I’ve worked with Alan Alda, Tommy Tune, Gordon MacRae, Betsy Palmer, Kaye Stevens, ah, well, you get the idea. I also stage managed Minsky’s Burlesque Follies to, there you have it—everything from ballet to burlesque.

 

Nightclub

Great fun though all that was, I ran into a realization that I was not happy. Not unhappy exactly. Lots of happy times. Good things going on. But something was amiss. Playing bridge with some theatre friends I said that if I could figure out a way to make a living outside of New York, I’d leave tomorrow. Hal Hester, my bridge partner responded with, "You want to manage my club in San Juan?" When I asked my bride of one year if she would like to move to San Juan she sleepily replied, "Sure, but I know we’ll never do it." A week later we had sublet our apartment, rented our farm in Maine and celebrated our first anniversary with a lovely dinner in San Juan. Together we managed The Sand and The Sea in Old San Juan for 18 months. I had time to think more about what happiness might mean for me and how to attain it.

 

Farmed

I purchased the farm in Maine in June 1969, fell in love with Barbara in July, asked her to marry me in August, she accepted in September and we were married November 29th. That was a very good year. Maine was where we settled next. With the mortgage paid off we began Gardening for Independence, as I titled my first book. We lived Barbara Kingsolver’s back-to-the-land experience 35 years earlier and for more than a year. Shoot, we are still doing it pretty much, not only at home but in our restaurant, Joshua’s.

 

MOFGA

We were farming organically so when Barbara (my Barbara) saw a notice in the paper for a meeting of the York County organic folks she dragged me to it. It was their first meeting. One thing led to another and when we went to the first annual meeting of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, I was nominated for president. I declined but accepted the next year. Then one of the organic folks told me I should go to a meeting in opposition to the construction of an oil refinery. I guess I made some pithy remarks at that meeting as the organizers grabbed me after the meeting and offered me a job as their executive director. I take a small amount of credit for there being no oil refinery in Maine.

 

Other successful non-profits

My leadership in that effort got me in more trouble. One of the volunteers in the oil refinery fight came up to me when it was over and said, "Mort, we’ve got to do something about Laudholm Farm." I had no idea this beautiful farm existed just seven miles from me on the coast. After many conversations with myself about what I wanted to do, keep my own farm going and live off the land, and what I was somehow feeling compelled to do. Compulsion won. I founded a non-profit, Laudholm Trust and took it thorough two three million plus dollar campaigns saving the farm from development and creating the Wells National Estuarine Reserve. That consumed thirteen years of my life.
 

When I left to get back to my own life compulsion stepped in again. I had the opportunity to save the Ogunquit Playhouse from development. How could I say no? The Ogunquit Playhouse had brought me to Maine and introduced me to my wife. I founded another non-profit.

 

Consultant

I did this one as a volunteer but, even though my motto by this time was "retire early, retire often" I could never really retire as there were living expenses that had to be met. I decided to put my experiences and successes to work and make gobs of money as a consultant. I’d be working for myself. It should be fun as I’d have a great boss and a great employee. I’ve got lots of letters from grateful non-profit organizations who found me helpful but the gobs of money didn’t really happen. What did happen, however, is that I came to the realization that gobs-of-money was not a good goal. Not only is it illusive but it gobbles up a lot of thinking time that could be put to much better use. It’s that happiness thing again. Trying to figure out how to save, spend, protect from loss gobs of money is just not fun for me. I find happiness in using my mind to solve problems.

 

Philosopher

I started thinking deep thoughts about 55 years ago. At 14 I had gone through indoctrination and joined the Presbyterian Church in Flemington, New Jersey while we were still living on the farm. We moved to a small town nearby and joined the Presbyterian Church there that was close to our house. When I learned that there was another Presbyterian Church in that same small town less than a mile from the one we joined and that either church was big enough to hold much more then the combined congregations I was confused. Why two churches of the same denomination? I learned there had been a split because they couldn’t agree on something.

Not get along in the same church in a rural community??? I thought my religion was all about love and getting along. What of "love thy neighbor as thyself"? What of "love your enemies"? If a small body of people who professed to be following the teachings of Jesus couldn’t get along, what chance was there for love in the world?

When I was 33 I came upon another odd question. I had achieved a measure of fame and fortune and had been married just a year yet found myself to be unhappy. How could this be? I was rapidly rising in my chosen career, owned 100 acres in southern Maine, had lots of friends and did lots of fun things. Unhappiness just didn’t make sense but it was there so I began a quest that, many years later, led to what I call profound happiness.

A third stimulus for deep thought came when I heard a televangelist railing against homosexuals. He ended by saying that he loved them and that he would pray for their salvation. My immediate reaction was, "How sad. He doesn’t understand love." Then I thought, "Why did I think that? What is my understanding of love? How does it differ from his?"

Philosophy, for me, is simply thinking deep thoughts and what deeper than the purpose of life. I have found the purpose for me to be happiness. I guess I was looking for "profound happiness" from the beginning but I didn’t know what it was or that it even existed. I just keep working on improving my happiness by looking at the times in my life when I was most happy and analyzing them, trying to figure out what was at their core, what I could take from those times that would make me more happy in the present. The first half of How to Improve Your Life and Save the World is my memoir of this pursuit. So if that problem is solved, what might be the second most interesting problem? Saving the world, of course. You are probably skeptical about my ability to save the world or to help you save the world. Who could blame you? But what have you got to loose other than a few bucks and a few hours? Put that against the possibility you will save the world.

 

Writer

My first writing was letters to my father who had left me when I was thirteen, then letters to my first true love which were signed "Love, forever" not nearly as long as I anticipated at the time. There were letters to other interesting women, letters to friends, Christmas letters, oh, yeah, I wrote a bit during the four years in college.

My first writing that earned me some money happened by accident. I became chapter head of a new organic gardening/farming organization back in 1972 when organic farmers were looked on as hippie/weirdo/freaks and was told that the local paper would not print announcements of our meetings probably because we were organic hippies. I drafted a column on gardening and another on food, called the paper and asked to talk to someone about them. When I went to meet the editor he came down to the reception area to meet me and tell me that their columns were written by staff. Not being much of a salesman I turned to go when he asked my back, "What is the column about?" "Gardening" I replied whereupon he invited me up to his office and told me he could only pay me twenty cents an inch!

I held my excitement in check as I was planning to write them for free. I mentioned that I had a column on food which he took. I wrote a weekly column that I called The Garden Spot for 25 years. I sold the column to two other papers. A publisher who had read the column asked me to write a book which was how Gardening For Independence came into being. Another garden writer came across my columns and recommended me to Mother Earth News.

I don't consider myself a writer, at least not a writer first; I'm a thinker, much of it done while gardening, and it is very difficult to keep good thoughts to oneself. The only place you can read excerpts of How to Improve Your Life and Save the World is here. A memoir on the time my father left me was published by Sense Publishing in On (Writing) Families.

About 2009 I wrote my first Orvie story for a writing group I belong to. They loved it so I wrote another the next month and every month after for five years when they urged me to turn them into a book. That took another year working with two excellent writers. A Stone's Throw, Orvie's Stories was published in 2016 by Maine Author's Publishing. I call it memoirish fiction.

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Mort Mather

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