Reed Magazine May

an oral history of Reed College


Betty Brockman Martin’s parents operated a delicatessen on SW Jefferson Street in Portland, on property owned by Reed. She said that the family’s business association with the college helped convince her and her sister Wanda Brockman ’40 to enroll. Martin spent five years earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics, during a time when women were encouraged to be stenographers or teachers. After her initial job as an actuary in an insurance company in Portland, Martin took a civil service test and went to Moffitt Field in California to work for NASA in its high-speed wind tunnel. She and her husband moved to Washington, where they raised three children. Both her husband and her sister died in 1992.

“The Edward VIII speech”

Students convened in the chapel during Martin’s years (1936–41) to listen to important radio broadcasts, including speeches by Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill’s declaration of war, and the abdication of Edward VIII. “We were absolutely shocked when we heard of King Edward’s abdication. And then, of course, the rest of the day was just discussion of ‘What does this do to England? What will this do to the monarchy?’ Some students prepared banners that read ‘Simpson for Queen’ and put them all over downtown Portland. The banner plastering produced a good laugh.”

After the U.S. agreed to join
the World War II Allied efforts. . . .

With the draft in place, Martin felt that men were more affected by the prospect of war than women, but the discussions about war involved everyone on campus. “It always reverted to something like, ‘What is Europe going to do next?’ We certainly couldn’t foretell the future, the horrors of World War II, and I think we probably thought it would all stay in Europe.” On a return to campus years after the war, she saw the plaque in the entrance to Eliot Hall for the World War II fallen. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘I knew all of those young men, and they were the cream of the crop.’ It was really hard and sad to see that.”

"Some students prepared banners that read ‘Simpson for Queen’ and put them all over downtown Portland. The banner plastering produced a good laugh. "

A typical day

Martin was a day dodger vs. a “lodger,” so she attended very few social events, nor could she stay on campus and study at the library. Getting to and from Reed required spending hours on buses. She started her day at Reed with an 8 a.m. class, worked at the library after class to pay tuition, then went home and helped her parents close up their store. It took five years to get her bachelor’s degree. “I came out with a very odd, love–hate relationship with Reed. I think it’s because it stretched me to the very limits of everything I could produce. And the only way I knew that was when I got out into the business world and had no problem at all. I rose to the top in every position I ever had because other people were not as stringently trained as I was. Well, I didn’t know that while I was at Reed.”


Two requirements for graduation: swimming and a reading knowledge
of French

“I spent three years in that blasted swimming pool out at Reed, trying to learn to swim. And I don’t think I ever really made it. Languages I did not like. Whenever I would stand to read French out loud, the professor would hold his head. ‘Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!’ he would say.” A swimming-related incident took place in her economics class—she was the only woman and non-participant. “One day I went in to class, which was right after lunch. And the professor came in with all the rest of the young men just in their swim shorts. Nothing more on. And he said, ‘We just came from the swimming pool and we’re going back! And we didn’t think you would mind.’ So they all sat down in their wet swimming trunks and we had class. Now in how many other colleges does that happen? (Do they still do that at Reed?)”

The honor principle

Martin said that students, especially freshmen, were told, “if you cheat in any way, that’s your problem. You’ll get out in the world and you will not be able to maintain what you’re expected to do. So it’s really cheating yourself. We don’t care about grades, they always said, it’s you that is important. And they dwelt on that quite a bit.”

Professors A.A. Knowlton and F.L. Griffin

Knowlton, said Martin, taught her how to think, that in order to solve a problem, one must start at the basics. “The year I had with him, I think he influenced my life more than anyone. He used to stand me up in a corner and make me recite all of the definitions of the words in a problem in order to solve the physics problem. I was able to carry that over into other businesses and work.”

Griffin was her teacher and thesis adviser, and someone who thought that 5 1/2 hours of sleep was sufficient. (“Somehow I needed more than 5 1/2 hours . . .”) “Writing the thesis [The Geodesics on a Torus and Their Isogonal Projections] was one of the high points of my mathematical career. I loved my thesis. I loved the subject, and I wrote it very well. And he was proud of me, too. I think quite surprised. He told me one time later that he took my thesis with him to the University of Chicago when he went back for a conference, and they looked at it and said, ‘Why, this is a master’s degree thesis!’” Griffin helped her secure her first position, which she began the day after graduation. End of Article

For more on the oral history project, go to

Martin was interviewed by Sally Snyder Brunette ’83.

This is one of a series of articles based on interviews with alumni, faculty, and staff in an effort to chronicle and illuminate the college’s history. –Ed.

Reed Magazine May