Life story: George Martin, rugby league pioneer and gifted artist
George Martin: sportsman, artist: b Lower Hutt, June 26, 1931; m Mary, 2s; d Lower Hutt, May 18, 2017, aged 85.
Empire Games pole vaulter, professional rugby league player, champion rugby player and a gifted artist – George Martin was a man of many talents who holds a special place in New Zealand sporting history.
Born and bred in Lower Hutt, Martin went on to become one of the first New Zealanders to play professional rugby league in Australia.
A talented sportsman, he also created a unique moment in New Zealand sport when he qualified for the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.
A Wellington champion in shot put, discus and javelin, Martin decided his best chance of making it to the Empire Games was in the pole vault – an event he had not previously attempted.
Under the cover of darkness, he sneaked in to Lower Hutt's Riddiford Gardens and cut a giant piece of bamboo.
With help from a Canadian coach, Theo Gilmore, he not only qualified for Auckland but finished a creditable sixth.
The fuzzy pictures from that era serve as a reminder of how different sport was in those days.
Son Brendan Martin recalls his father talking about the pole vault and, without any of the modern safety equipment, landing with a thud in the sand.
His father's success in the pole vault showed he was never afraid of a challenge, Brendan said at his funeral.
Martin attended Randwick School, Sts Peters and Pauls, and Hutt Valley Memorial Tech, and it was soon evident he was good at sport.
He first represented Wellington rugby at 17 and in 1950 played against the British Lions.
Match reports suggested he had a big future in rugby but instead of focusing on the All Blacks, he put an advert in the Sydney Morning Herald, advertising his services as a centre.
Three rugby league clubs responded and in 1951, he signed up with the North Sydney Bears.
In an era when rugby held an almost unbreakable grip on most New Zealanders, his move inevitably raised eyebrows.
Brendan believes his father was looking for a fresh challenge but admits he still does not fully understand his motivation.
In an interview in 2000 with the Hutt News, George admitted to having a few regrets and said he had only played league for the money.
He hinted that he thought he was good enough to make the All Blacks and, given his time again, he would concentrate on rugby.
True to form, Martin flourished during the four years he spent playing league in Australia.
In 1952, he was named one of the top five league players in Australia and the following year he played for the Rest of Australia against the Kangaroos.
Martin returned to Wellington when his wife, Mary, found it hard to settle in Sydney.
In the Hutt Valley he continued playing rugby league for Randwick. He also joined the Cardinals Softball Club and went on to represent the Hutt Valley and be chosen for New Zealand.
In 1958, he added another feather to his sporting cap when he played league for Wellington at the Basin Reserve against Great Britain.
Interestingly, the match programme was more impressed with his rugby background than his professional league career.
"On his day, a brilliant attacking fullback and a devastating tackler. Veteran Rugby Union fullback Vern Hunt once described Martin as one of the hardest tacklers he had ever played against. A sound tactician, Martin links up brilliantly with his backs and is an able touch-finder. Unlucky not to be a Kiwi."
When George retired from league, it was not to be the end of his sporting career.
He took up golf and was soon collecting trophies. Playing at the Lower Hutt club of Shandon, he was their junior, intermediate and senior title and set a course record.
As varied and successful as his sporting career was, sport was not the be-all and end-all for Martin.
As a young man, he exhibited an interest in art and it was art that dominated his working life as a graphic designer, artist and illustrator.
At the Avalon TV Studios, he became friends with Keith Quinn, who as a sports commentator recognised his unique range of sporting talents.
In his spare time Martin enjoyed drawing and painting, and Brendan says he had an obvious talent for portraiture.
"He could capture the likeness of people really, really well. He did some landscape painting but it was portraits that he excelled at."