Apr 17 2014

One way we celebrate notable people tied in with the history of our properties is to name hotel rooms in their honor. Lately, we've been working with a wonderful, and wonderfully eclectic, assemblage of folks who collectively are the namesakes of Kennedy School's original guest rooms. Dr. MarthaWe will have all 35 histories printed, framed and hung in the rooms soon, but thought we'd share one of them with you today... the amazing story of Martha Rohner van der Vlught, a.k.a. "Dr. Martha."

She patched up spies in Saigon, tended the sick in Africa and made house calls by plane in eastern Oregon. She skied the Alps and climbed Mount Hood three times. And she also managed to raise seven children.   

It's worth a moment to read her inspirational story, now preserved in Kennedy School's "Dr. Martha" guest room...

Martha Rohner was born in 1909 in Switzerland, the youngest of five. With WWI approaching, the Rohners decided to move their family around the world to the safety of the United States. They eventually settled in Portland, establishing a homestead at NE 33rd and Columbia. Martha's father did beautiful woodworking and sold milk from their four cows; Martha, her three brothers and sister even helped to deliver the milk on their bikes. They didn't have much opportunity to make friends-"Never waste time," their father told them-but they were close to one another.

Upon enrollment at Kennedy School, young Martha hadn't yet learned to speak English, so her teacher, Mrs. Stille, sat her next to her desk in front of the class. Martha was able to learn English speech and mannerisms this way. "I really enjoyed learning all the time," she recalled. "It was a pleasure."

It is evident that education of one sort or another became her lifelong pursuit. After graduation from Kennedy, Jefferson High School and Reed College in SE Portland, Martha completed her graduate work at Oregon Medical School (today known as OHSU) in 1937 and married fellow OHSU grad Dr. Gerrold van der Vlught.

The couple embarked on what became an adventurous 23-year medical practice in the remote reaches of the John Day Valley in Eastern Oregon, where they were known as "Dr. Martha and Dr. Jerry." The couple made house calls to ranchers, loggers and other leathery types in their small airplane, performing surgeries, delivering babies, and more. "[Martha and Jerry] were both lovely people," recalled a former employee, "and they cared for each other very much."

They also organized hospitals, served in their church and participated in local government (in which Dr. Martha acted as Civil Defense Director for the John Day area). She is shown at left, accepting her new position.

During this time, the couple also managed to raise four children of their own, along with Martha's brother's three children who came to them after their parents were killed in a car accident. 

After Dr. Martha's beloved husband died in 1964, she returned home to Switzerland. "I thought I could run away from grief. You know, you can't. But I tried." After two years, she decided it was time to begin her next chapter. So she joined the U.S. State Department as the first female regional medical officer in the Foreign Service! She completed posts in such volatile spots as Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Niger, and Senegal-not exactly cushy deployments, to be sure-handling special medical cases that she assumed were "probably spy work."

She retired from the State Department in 1973. But she wasn't done yet! From '73 through 1992, Dr. Martha reviewed disability and special entitlement claims for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Office of Retired Programs.

At the culmination of her astounding 54 years of active medical practice, Dr. Martha returned to Oregon to accept the Outstanding Alumni Award from OHSU. In remarks written for the ceremony, her son and fellow OHSU graduate Gerrold Jr. said, "The great respect afforded my parents by all strata of the society and the deep commitment and sense of responsibility they demonstrated have served as reference beacons."

As for what Dr. Martha thought of her remarkable career and life? "It was fun," she blithely recalled. And for certain, she fulfilled the decree her father had made decades earlier to his children to never waste time.

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