WINTHROP — Robert Martin’s wife of 61 years had just died. Their beloved cats were gone. They had no children. 

At 84, Martin wasn’t feeling well himself.

It was time, he felt, to give away his money.

He’d donated $5,000 to a New Sharon library and he was preparing to sponsor a college scholarship in his wife’s honor, but he wanted to fund a project. Something local. Something needed. Something cat-related, if possible, because he and his wife had adored their Sweetie and Pookie.

When a family friend, Mark King, took him to the PALS No-Kill Cat Shelter in Winthrop this summer, Martin knew he’d found his place.

“That was love at first sight,” King said.

Shelter leaders had dreamed of building a little garage for storage. Instead, with $300,000 from Martin and help from a Western Maine engineering company and contractor he knew, they’ll get a catio (cat patio), a maternity wing, a kitten room, a senior cat room, a surgical/veterinary care room — and a garage and storage building.

It’s the second-largest donation in the shelter’s 30-year history.

“It means that we have a future,” Executive Director Theresa Silsby said. 

It’s a future Martin secured, but he won’t get to admire. He died last month, not long after the project’s groundbreaking.

“He was a wonderful man,” Silsby said. “Unfortunately, he was taken from us too soon.”

Martin was born in Washington D.C., but he called Western Maine home for most of his life. For more than 20 years, he taught biology at the University of Maine at Farmington, his alma mater. He led revolutionary research and inspired a generation of students to embrace biology and environmental science — including King, who works for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Sustainability. 

Martin’s wife, Shirley, served as head reference librarian at UMF for more than 30 years. The couple lived in New Sharon but traveled extensively around the world, often combining vacations and research trips. 

“They both loved animals in every shape and form,” King said. “Many, many, many times he worked with the tiniest mice. A lot of his degrees are in working with different types of mice and voles and other types of lemmings. He just loved everything about nature and so did she. They would just go through the world and they’d see things people often neglected.”

Shirley Martin died in December at age 83. Her passing devastated Martin.

It wasn’t long before he began giving away the money they’d saved.

“He said, ‘I don’t really have the desire to do anything with it. I don’t want to travel because without her everything I see I’d want to talk with her about,'” King recalled. “He said, ‘I want to honor her.'”

Soon after, the couple’s elderly cats died. Sweetie went first. Then, this summer, Pookie died.

Martin had already wanted to donate a block of money to a local animal charity. PALS, which is dedicated to cats, seemed perfect. 

King told shelter leaders that Martin wanted to give them some money, but shelter leaders had no idea how much.

“He talked about an expansion, so we’re thinking, ‘Oh, OK, we can build our garage,'” Silsby said. “It became a little bit more than that.”

The $300,000 donation was one of the largest PALS has received, second only to the endowment that started the nonprofit shelter.

With 200 cats a year and counting, PALS had been out of room for a while. Before Martin, it had little hope of a solution.

The expansion will not only give humans the storage they need, but it will provide special, low-stress areas for mother cats, kittens and elderly cats. The shelter will get a dedicated medical room, allowing it to bring in volunteer veterinarians once or twice a month so it won’t always have to take cats to vet appointments off site. And it will get a larger “catio,” a sun room where the shelter’s cats can see and be seen as they await adoption.    

“We’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” Silsby said.

The shelter held a groundbreaking ceremony last month. Not feeling well, Martin asked King to attend in his place.

Martin died a few weeks later.

With his gift, Martin asked that the shelter put up a plaque and a bench in memory of his wife. He wanted her to be the one remembered.

PALS will do that, but shelter leaders plan to honor him, too. 

“We might sneak in a plaque there, too,” Silsby said. “We certainly want to recognize him.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Robert Martin, left, and contractor Don Cornelio, right, pose this past summer with a bench and plaque that will be placed at the PALS No-Kill Cat Shelter in Winthrop. Martin donated $300,000 for the shelter’s expansion and asked only that the shelter honor his late wife with the bench and plaque. The plaque also includes a photo of Sweetie, one of the Martin family’s beloved cats that died. 

Robert and Shirley Martin pose in this undated photo. The couple was married for 61 years. When Shirley died in December, Robert began giving away the money they’d saved.

Mark King, left, and Robert Martin, right, pose in this undated photo. When Martin decided he wanted to donate money to an animal charity, King, his former student and a family friend, took him to the PALS cat shelter in Winthrop. “That was love at first sight,” King said.

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