'Wish the world had more Sonny Martins'

Stephen Igo • Mar 10, 2018 at 11:30 AM

JONESVILLE — A highly respected, admired and beloved Lee County and regional banking icon passed away in Knoxville on Thursday, leaving behind a legacy of personal, professional and public service that will live on in ways ranging from highways to a hospital to a reputation as the best friend a person or a county or a region could possibly have.

Sonny Martin, the retired chief executive officer of Jonesville-based Powell Valley National Bank, remained active with the PVNB Board of Directors by phone, in spite of health problems the last couple of years.

“He was a great friend. Sonny served on the (Commonwealth) Transportation Board to great effect on behalf of our region. I tell you, Sonny was all about Southwest Virginia and all about Lee County. He was just such a great advocate for our entire region,” said state Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City.

“He was the driving force behind the hospital legislation to reopen the Lee County hospital about three years ago. I just can’t say enough good about Sonny Martin. He was just one of those really, really good guys. I just wish the world had more Sonny Martins in it.”

Jonesville attorney George Cridlin serves on the PVNB board, “so I certainly knew Sonny very well. With Sonny, Lee County never had a better friend not only in his banking field, but he was instrumental fighting for our hospital and fighting to get it back.

“His serving on the (state) Transportation Board allowed him to have a great deal of influence that benefited our region in numerous ways. He will be sorely missed. He was just such a great advocate for our region. Powell Valley National Bank is particularly saddened, of course, after all his years of faithful service. Because of his health, he would attend (board meetings) by phone, and he always had an interest in the bank, his clients, customers and the board. He was always a great friend of our county.”

PVNB Executive Vice President Leton Harding said Sonny grew up in St. Charles “and loved his hometown with a passion. His father had a country store there. Sonny went to school there and was apparently a pretty good athlete, especially baseball, and that continued throughout his life. He and his wife, Joyce, were avid golfers.”

Martin’s passion for baseball, particularly the Cincinnati Reds, somehow crossed paths with Pete Rose, Harding said. The Reds’ legendary and outcast baseball player cruised into Lee County once “and somehow Pete Rose ended up at Sonny’s house. Sonny always loved to show off a picture of himself and Pete Rose hanging out together,” Harding said.

Harding said Martin got his start in banking with Lee Bank & Trust, and in early 1979 arrived at PVNB — the fifth-oldest bank in Virginia, by the way, established in Jonesville in 1888 with branches now in Pennington Gap, Wise, Big Stone Gap and Duffield, and loan production offices in Kingsport and Abingdon — starting off as a loan officer and eventually working his way up to president and CEO.

“Sonny was just a very personable individual. In a way it was some challenge for him to advance in our company because everybody wanted to deal with Sonny. Even as CEO, Sonny never turned away anybody. Whether it was an older customer who wanted him to help balance a checkbook or talk over a $500 loan, his focus was always on other people, no matter who they were,” Harding said.

In 1991, Martin became CEO of the company and remained until about four years ago, Harding said, “but he remained a member of our board, and since that time has been active right up until his passing yesterday.”

Martin was “very active and well respected in the banking industry,” Harding said, serving on the Virginia Bank Association board of directors.

In notifying other bank CEOs across Virginia of Martin’s passing, Harding said the news fell hard “because they all just regarded Sonny as a true Southern gentleman and community banker. I spoke to a banker this morning who some years back, his bank went through some issues, and he was telling me this morning during those difficult times who called him on the phone? None other than Sonny Martin to give him some words of encouragement. That’s just one example of the kind of person Sonny was.”

Harding also recalls the time he accompanied other bankers to visit the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C. and expected to meet a few senior staffers during their tour. Then Betsy Duke — who retired as a governor of the Federal Reserve Bank a couple of years ago, a position that’s a few levels higher than senior staffers — walked into the room, saw Harding, gave him a hug and asked, “So how’s my good friend Sonny?”

“There were all those other bankers staring like, who are you to get a hug from a Federal Reserve governor, and she’s asking how is Sonny?” Harding chuckled. “I mean folks not only locally and regionally and statewide knew Sonny, but there I was and a Federal Reserve governor was grabbing me up in a hug, asking about Sonny Martin.”

Harding said Martin’s customer service philosophy, even to assisting an elderly customer balance their checkbook if asked, “was quite simply unparalleled. And that’s a core philosophy embodied in our company. The Sonny philosophy, if you will: we are a true community bank serving everyone in the community.”

Harding said Martin was a “strong promoter of economic growth and one of the vehicles he found to do that was with the (state) Transportation Board. He lobbied very successfully for road projects all across Southwest Virginia. Anytime a senior level (Virginia Department of Transportation) person made their way down this way, they made a special purpose to see Sonny.”

Martin’s tenure on the Transportation Board came to an end. But it really didn’t, Harding said. There are two at-large seats on the board, rural and urban. After some years, VDOT officials approached Martin to fill the rural at-large position.

“So he was asked to come on the board again. It was kind of unprecedented for a former board member to be sought out and be asked to serve as a representative of all of rural Virginia’s transportation needs,” Harding said.

Martin served as a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board from the summer of 1996 until the summer of 2002, and his tenure as a rural at-large member began in the summer of 2012.

On Friday, VDOT Bristol District Engineer Randy Hamilton said Sonny Martin’s impact is a lasting one.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Mr. Martin, who was well respected in his community and by those at VDOT who worked with him during his time on the Commonwealth Transportation Board,” said Hamilton. “He was a champion of Southwest Virginia and an advocate for improving transportation for its residents.”

Harding said transportation and banking hardly scratch the surface of the whole of Sonny Martin.

“I must say, one of the things Sonny was always very proud of was when he served as an elector one year in the Electoral College,” Harding shared.

“Sonny just took great pride in the country — he served in the Army too, by the way — and for him, he viewed serving as an elector in the Electoral College as one of the most tremendous honors he ever had — to be asked to serve in the free elections we have here. He called it a ‘solemn action’ to have the responsibility to represent the voters to cast his vote for president.”

Harding called Martin’s wife, Joyce, “Sonny’s golfing buddy. You didn’t often see Sonny that you didn’t see Joyce. They were both so very much active in their (longtime home base of) Pennington Gap. She was instrumental in the renovations of the Lee Theatre and so much more. It was a true family interest in Lee County and Southwest Virginia.”

Born July 7, 1935, Lloyd Sonny Martin was 82 at his passing. Besides his golfing buddy, Martin is survived by daughters Karen Lascola and her husband, Tony, and Virginia (Jenny) Joy and her husband, Scott; and two granddaughters, Lauren and Carolyn Joy.

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