A Foundation of Love and Learning
Originally from New York, Elaine Marten has accomplished and is still accomplishing much in her life. Often found in an exercise class or at the swimming pool, she enjoys staying active and dons the most interesting outfits that range from fun colors to eccentric patterns. Intelligent and coming off very demure, she claims she “isn’t very interesting,” but sources say quite the opposite! Our discussion consisted of a number of topics, from her life’s work, to technology, to faith, to academia, family life, the resilient human spirit, and volunteering and sustainability efforts.
With a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Rochester in NY, Elaine is a very intelligent lady, and her life’s work has focused on sustainability and water conservation. The author of a number of publications while she was still in grad school, she worked industrially for Eastman Kodak most of her career before leaving at the age of 50. She said that what drew her to the sciences was simply, “I had an affinity for math and science … I was good at them and have found that accomplishing anything in those fields is very rewarding. I think you sort of have to feel that way about your life’s work. It served me well.”
The granddaughter of Italian migrants on the maternal side of her family and of German migrants on the paternal side of her family, she recalls her family life as “very warm, loving, and supportive,” and had “a wonderful relationship” with her parents and grandparents. Her father passed in his mid 60s, leaving her mother devastated, but as women tend to do, “we bravely pushed ahead — my mother met and married a lovely widower, and they had a happy life until both passed around the age of 80.”
She met her husband while at Kodak, where he worked in the paper and photographic film portion of the organization and she in the laboratory creating chemicals for those very same products. She said that they met at an extracurricular activity and, chuckling as she spoke, that it “worked out well.” Although having no biological children of her own, her husband had four children from a previous marriage. One has since passed away, but two of them live in Dallas and one son lives in Guatemala with his wife, where they have been working as missionaries teaching at the Christian Academy of Guatemala for the past 15 years.
Elaine and her husband lived in Rochester, NY until they retired in late 2015. Although they loved the cultural offerings of the city, the number of cold, blustery days became too much, and they decided to move to North Carolina for a kinder, gentler climate.
In 2018, shortly after their move to Ardenwoods, Elaine’s husband, who had always taken good care of himself and was in excellent condition, unexpectedly and tragically passed. She describes the time following as difficult, saying, “He was so strong and, health-wise, was in the top 10% of his age group. We were married for over 40 years, so his passing has been a real adjustment.”
She pauses to collect her thoughts and continues, “Even despite the circumstances, I pushed ahead, and we all have to do that. Ardenwoods is a wonderful, warm place, and having the support from everyone here after such a traumatic occurrence has been wonderful. I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened at our house in Rochester. As a single person, continuing to live there would have been difficult. But this community has so much to offer, and you can find something that appeals to everyone, even during difficult circumstances.”
A Passion for Sustainability
Elaine not only actively participates in activities offered by Ardenwoods, she also volunteers with a group sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality called “Waste Reduction Partners,” located here in Asheville. She notes that she became interested in the company due to her strong commitment to preserving the environment and conserving water. Her background in science also made her a great fit for this type of volunteer work.
She has much passion for sustainability and making a difference and uses her expertise and experience as a chemist to help companies create more sustainable products and repurpose waste materials into useful byproducts.
“We’re all technical people, primarily engineers, some having experience in other associated scientific practices. I’m a chemist, and we’ve worked with biologists, hydrogeologists, and toxicologists to name a few. We come together on our mission, which consists of three parts — reducing waste, saving energy, and water efficiency. I’ve been heavily involved in zero landfill waste and putting that waste material into a useful secondary application.”
She continues, “We’ve developed products to aid in sustainability, and one project I did a lot of work on was transforming waste materials into a lightweight, concrete substitute that significantly reduced the customary use of virgin raw materials. We’ve also worked with local power companies to support energy efficiency, as North Carolina is still a big coal burning state. We use much of the refuse from the coal ash to create new concrete materials, and we recycle what we safely can.”
Elaine is excited that so much of the younger generation support sustainability. “Preserving our planet — it’s exactly what our mission is here!” she exclaims.
“I’ve absorbed a lot of education and engineering skills from my colleagues in my volunteer group,” she says. “I’ve worked together with them on programs so often. I like to joke and say that ‘at first, I couldn’t even spell engineer, now I are one!’”
A Place to Call Home
She thinks very highly of Ardenwoods. “It’s a place to call home,” she says with fondness. She explains that one of the most rewarding things about growing older and retirement is the freedom to do as she pleases, not working a 10-hour day at the lab. Even though she loved her job, Elaine said it could be constraining working on programs and supporting other projects for a commercial firm. She appreciates the freedom she has to participate in activities and volunteer work that she wasn’t able to before, and even being able to practice more of her spirituality as a Christian. “It’s a blessing to be able to attend bible studies and get together with groups and worship on campus. It has gotten me back into reading the Old Testament and having that connection with others. Also, having the opportunity to participate in support groups after the loss of my husband … it has been very refreshing.”
Reflection on Her Life So Far
As an academic at heart and in practice, Elaine has used her reflection on her life as a means to think about not only what she’s accomplished, but also what she wishes she’d done more of.
One of her “regrets” is that she would have liked to have been more involved with underserved populations and demographics to help alleviate the problems of poverty. She noted that while she lived in the Northeast, she wasn’t exposed to nearly as many disadvantaged populations as she’s observed here in the Southeast.
“I feel as though maybe I haven’t been as giving and generous of my life’s work in that direction as I might have been. I’ve found that through my volunteer work here, it helps to balance that, but I’m really not doing very much to help those who don’t have the advantages of a good family life, or education. There just seems to be … so many broken relationships here, and it’s shameful that there are children who can’t benefit from the support of their parents. I feel like serving that population of people was maybe a lack in my development and growth.”
Advice to Younger Generations — And to All of Us!
Toward the end of our discussion, she imparts some life advice for younger generations to learn from, and it’s very revealing.
“I think it’s a mistake to interrupt your education. I see so many young people who are saying, ‘Well, I’m going to knock education off for now and try to gain some earning power for a couple years, then come back and pick up where I left off.’ And they may succeed, but most of the instances I’ve witnessed have not really led to the optimum outcome.”
“I think that that would be one piece of the advice I’d give to someone younger,” she says. “Secondly, just in my senior years, now, I see people who are waiting too long to make a change for their future. And then when the time comes, and if there’s a real crisis, you have little choice of where you are, where you can go beyond that, or how you can continue your life in a resourceful way, or in a way that is most satisfying to you.”
She ends with this: “I guess, don’t postpone joy, embrace what freedom you may have now so you can live out the rest of your days in a joyful way.”
We can all learn a lot from Elaine — from her resilience, her love for learning, and her intention to live a life of joy! We’re thrilled that she chose to make our community her home, and we can’t wait to see what the coming years have in store for her.