It’s a Wonderful Life
05 Jan 2021
A colorful journey, a vivacious spirit
By TERESA McLAMB
In the two decades Martha McKee Koletar worked in Manhattan, the Guilford County native was mooned by a completely naked obese man, worked alongside tycoons of industry, saw her unfiled patent idea for sale in Bloomingdales, and collaborated with a radio host to secure a job for a “squeegee.” And those aren’t even the high spots.
Koletar had the typical Southern town upbringing, which included cheering for the football team at Greensboro Senior High School as it beat New Hanover High School for the 1961 4A championship. She modeled locally and was in numerous pageants and beauty courts.
After college, Koletar worked as secretary to the engineer who invented all of the equipment used to make cough drops for the Greensboro based Vicks division of Richardson-Merrel, Inc. It piqued her interest in patenting her own ideas, but she failed to follow through. “I’m one of those people who can come up with ideas, but I’m not good about carrying them through. I didn’t have the resources,” Koletar says. Her interest in invention may be inherited. “My grandfather invented a part in the telephone that took out the static, but patent rights are assigned to Southern Bell where he worked until retirement.”
Twenty years later, she would see her tennis shoe idea for sale in New York City.
In the intervening years, Koletar moved quickly into human resources positions, first with Vicks where she interviewed and hired recruits and published the house organ, which earned an award for being the best in the southeast.
“The people were salt of the earth. Because I was young, they just sort of took me under their wing,” says Koletar.
After seven years, she moved to GE’s newly opened Mebane plant. “I was there when it started up and had to hire the entire plant,” Koletar says. Still living in Greensboro, she opted to find work closer to home. A division of Kayser-Roth Corporation, Rolane had 37 outlet stores. “I was head of human resources,” says Koletar. The company made and sold apparel including hosiery made in mills in Greensboro and Burlington. She traveled to 37 stores in nine states, including one in Wilmington and one in New York City. “People in the corporate office in New York would come down to visit, and they were always trying to get me to transfer to New York City,” Koletar says. When an opening for personnel director came up, she took it. “It was a great job; my first job was situated in Rockefeller Center. Unfortunately, that put me about a block away from Saks Fifth Avenue, so I would walk down on lunch break to Saks,” says Koletar.
It was here that she befriended one of the ever-present windshield cleaners, nicknamed Squeegee. “I was in a hurry, so I didn’t give him any money. I went back the next day, because I felt bad and gave him money and started talking to him a little bit,” Koletar explains. Coincidentally, Charles McCord of Imus in the Morning told the story of talking to a Squeegee and learning that his only desire was to work in the mail room in the Payne Webber building which was where Kaiser-Roth was located. Koletar contacted McCord and together they found the young man who lived with his grandmother. Koletar provided him with an interview suit and took him to lunch. “Before we started eating, he bowed his head and was saying a little prayer, so my heart went out to him,” says Koletar. Needless to say, he got the job. They stayed in touch for several years.
Four years into her job, Kayser-Roth closed their corporate office, and she went to work for Cotler as vice president of human resources. At the time they were the largest men’s apparel company in the country. She added union negotiations to her resume.
After Cotler, she worked as head of human resources and operations for Whitney Museum of American Art in its former location at 77th and Madison. The operations job included security and union negotiations for art handlers, projectionists, truckers and others. “It was a busy job, but it was exciting. In my office I would have million-dollar paintings,” Koletar says. She represented the museum on the board of directors along with individuals such as Peter Norton of Norton Virus, the president of Macy’s, a Hearst Publications rep and others. “All these people were trying to out CEO each other. It was a trip,” Koletar recalls.
Art handlers moved works of art through the museum in padded elevators. “To watch the artist watch his or her piece of artwork [being installed] was just amazing. They were so afraid it was going to get damaged,” Koletar says.
She described one work of art, a molded piece of an older woman and her dog, which was so realistic she tricked a young friend into thinking they were alive. Another piece of work included a live bird in a cage. “At night I would put the bird in my office. PETA came to visit to make sure we were treating that bird right. Of course, we were,” she says.
“I loved New York. It was so special. The wonderful restaurants, the theater. Koletar describes being at Broadway play, walking back to her seat during intermission. People around her were saying “look.” She turned and right behind her was The Fonz, Henry Winkler. “So, I said to him ‘Oh. I thought they were talking about me.’ He said ‘Oh, I love you.’ He took my arm and took me to my seat,” Koletar reminisces fondly.
Koletar would work for one more company, Haband, before deciding to leave the city after 911. A poem and letter she wrote about the tragedy were included in a published compilation.
Her family and school friends had visited the coast often from Greensboro, and her late brother’s family had a house on Oak Island for a while. She and Joe decided the beach was the place for them. Since moving here, she’s been an active poll worker. “I’m very interested in politics. It’s a civic duty,” Koletar says. She’s also active in fundraisers for veterans and other efforts in her community and church.
It was about that same time she became interested in tracing her family’s history. The interest became an obsession, as it has become for many. She found ancestors who served in the American Revolution and joined Daughters of the American Revolution in 2016. She is vice regent of the Brunswick Town chapter.
Koletar has learned that she’s related to Johnny Cash and that she shares her love of acting and writing with several ancestors.
“It’s definitely my hobby, and the thing that is very soothing to me. You get lost, and you think you know these people. They come to life. It’s made me more aware of history and the sacrifices of the lives that they lived,” says Koletar.
She also learned that her love of New York might have begun in the womb. In researching Newspapers.com, she found an article interviewing her mother after a trip to New York. “When she was a buyer for a store in Gastonia, they sent her to New York,” Koletar explains. “When she got back, the newspaper interviewed her, and she said she loved New York. She was glad to be home, but she really loved New York. The date [of the interview] was when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always attributed my love for New York as that.”