Determined: The Story of Nathaniel Martinez

He grew up with an interest in politics, a love of music and an incredible sense of humor. He also grew up with cancer. But perhaps what those who knew Nathaniel Martinez remember most about the young Edmond resident, who died at age 20, is his devotion to education and the steadfast pursuit of his goals.

Now, a scholarship has been started in his name by Tim Tillman, a friend of the family and University of Central Oklahoma employee, the scholarship seeks to help other UCO students achieve their goals in the face of adversity.

Martinez’s saga started in childhood with a game of tag football and a common tackle by his best friend. When Martinez’s leg broke far too easily, his family knew something was wrong, Tillman explains. Doctors discovered a tumor in his leg bone and rigorous treatment began. Martinez was in middle school at the time, and the treatment was followed by a long period of remission.

Martinez’s high school years were relatively normal. He played in the band at Santa Fe High School and participated in a punk rock band with friends. But hardship found Martinez again during his senior year. Tillman remembers clearly the afternoon that Martinez stopped by his home to visit Tillman’s stepson before he went to an eye appointment.

Martinez was having trouble with his vision and again, something wasn’t right. Another tumor was found on his optical nerve and an operation was necessary. That operation cost Martinez his eyesight and left him paralyzed. Although many may consider such a loss as the end, in Martinez’s case, it is where his story begins.

When Martinez, who had been active and athletic his entire life, began to face the bureaucratic difficulties of many who are disabled, such as the Social Security system, he found his direction in political science, said his mother, Karen Martinez. “He felt like the disabled needed a voice. He was well spoken, and I think it was an area he felt he could give back to,” she says.

To reach his goal of being that voice, Martinez knew he needed to stay committed to his education. But to even begin college took above–average efforts from Martinez. “He went to school to learn how to learn,” says Chip Nolen, Tillman’s stepson and Martinez’s best friend, referring to the time Martinez spent learning Braille and computer technology for the visually–impaired.

After finishing this preliminary effort, Martinez enrolled in Oklahoma City Community College and used his determination to memorize the campus so he could navigate it entirely and attend class. He repeated the process again the following year to memorize and attend UCO, all without losing his drive or positivity. “Nathaniel had the most amazing sense of humor and was one of the most tough-minded people I’d ever met,” Tillman says. “He was absolutely determined to pursue his education.”

Tillman’s office at UCO was near the Disabled Student Services office, so he was able to see Martinez and his efforts regularly. This characteristic of strength was not surprising to Tillman, who said that after Martinez’s death, many who knew him came to the conclusion that had he lived, he would have no doubt become a presidential nominee. “He was that single-mindedly devoted to something he believed in,” Tillman says. “Despite being fully aware of what was happening to him, he never lost that sense of humor. He was just an absolutely
incredible spirit.”

Nolen echoes this sentiment and said that through it all, Martinez was the one who held up his friends and never lost his joy. “We’d watch the game just like we always did, laugh just like we always did and [Martinez would] not let anything get him down,” he says.

His mother explains that his time at UCO was beneficial and his hard work culminated in a big triumph when Martinez acted as lead attorney for a mock trial team. They won the competition. However, Martinez’s illness had become terminal, and he died two months later in July 2009.

An idea occurred to Tillman and his family the day of Martinez’s funeral as they sought a way to honor him. “He was just relentless in his pursuit of education and what better way to honor that memory than by helping someone else?” Tillman says. He and his wife Kathy started the Nathaniel Martinez Scholarship. It is applicable to disabled UCO students who are enrolled the College of Liberal Arts.

The scholarship was awarded to its first recipient last year, said Lisa Antonelli, development director of UCO College of Liberal Arts. The scholarship committee is in the process of selecting the next recipient. “We hope that the scholarship inspires and encourages students to reach their educational dreams,” she says.

Nolen too says that it is in these students that determination like Martinez’s can be found and recognized. He says the ideal candidate is “someone who is in a situation similar to Nathaniel, who has been dealt a bad hand and someone who is pushing to succeed anyway. Somebody who is working that hard deserves any help we can give them,” he says.

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