Obituary of Martha Jane Hartke
Martha Hartke Obituary
Martha Hartke, widow of US Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, played an instrumental role in getting President Reagan to sign legislation in 1986 to create the US Institute of Peace, now situated in an elegant building on the nation’s mall across from the Kennedy Center, and in 2010 she was honored by the National Kidney Foundation for “saving one million lives” for her role in passing kidney dialysis legislation.
She had lunch and personal relationships with 15 First Ladies. Through her friendships, she furthered the causes that she cared about. In 1959, she met and was mentored by Eleanor Roosevelt who told her to “take care of your family, get involved in the life of the country, and help people in need.”
The two biggest causes of her life were efforts to establish the US Institute for Peace and her drive to save lives through kidney dialysis legislation.
Her husband was a leading voice against the Vietnam War, and it was his idea to create a US Institute of Peace. However, it did not have the necessary presidential signature, so Martha urged her friend Nancy Reagan to talk to President Reagan. Nancy assured her that she would talk to “Ronnie.” He signed the law shortly thereafter.
When the US Institute of Peace building was finally completed, then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, John Kerry wrote to his “Special Friend, Martha: The organization built to house Senator Hartke’s ideas now has a home worthy of its founder.” Sometimes, national movements that reach a certain level of maturity can be swayed by a personal touch at just the right moment.
Her interest in kidney dialysis arose from her conversations with friends in Indiana who explained that people were dying, despite having the techniques and know-how to save them. When her husband sponsored the legislation, she tirelessly promoted it with other Senators, especially Senator Russell Long the Chairman of the Finance Committee, until the law was passed.
At the conference of the National Kidney Foundation, the crowd of thousands gave her a standing ovation and she waved and smiled back. But when a man came up and introduced his wife and daughter and said they would both be dead without the legislation, she was moved in ways far more than the statistics could ever do.
President Bill Clinton wrote to his lifetime friend about being honored at the national convention: “Dear Martha, Congratulations! Helping to save one million lives is no small feat. I hope you’re proud of this impressive legacy.”
She remained involved in political life and gave First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden one of the pens that President Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a symbol of the progress that had been made.
Martha first met Joe Biden when he was 29 and running for the Senate. When the terrible accident nearly drove Joe from taking his Senate seat, Martha offered to take care of his two young children and raise them in her home until he could get back on his feet. Joe’s sister came to the rescue, but Joe never forgot. He became a close friend and an ally of Senator Hartke on opposition to the Vietnam War and on protection for the environment.
When she came to Washington DC, she was invited to the White House in 1962 to meet with President Kennedy. In the Oval Office, he asked her to chair a national banquet for the Freedom from Hunger initiative. It was a tremendous success and set a record for raising funds for the UN program. She was thanked by Edward R. Murrow, one of America’s greatest journalists who was on the host committee.
Martha started her political life when her husband became Mayor of Evansville, Indiana in 1955. She remembered the first day they opened the Hartke Pool which was the first integrated pool in Indiana. She recalled the basketball games of the Evansville Purple Aces where she was the ultimate fan. Athletics were in her blood and her brother, Richard Tiernan was in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame and honored in Richmond, Indiana where they named the Tiernan Athletic Center after him.
Martha campaigned with President Harry Truman when he came to Indiana for her husband’s Senate race in 1958. It was Truman who told her and her husband about the importance of health care for the elderly. Later, her husband was one of the six Senate leaders to pass Medicare and Medicaid that Lyndon Johnson championed.
She campaigned with Senator Jack Kennedy in his race for the presidency. He told her to hold his legs tighter so he wouldn’t be pulled out of the convertible by excited fans. She was active in presidential races for fifty years. US Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who defeated her husband, became a close family friend who called Martha the best campaigner he ever met.
Born in Richmond, Indiana on March 14, 1920, before women had the right to vote, she lived for 101 years and died from congestive heart failure. She will be buried next to her husband at Arlington National Cemetery on March 16, 2022.
She graduated from Indiana University where she met her husband. She raised 7 children, Sandra, Jan, Wayne, Keith, Paul, Anita, and Nadine. She also had 14 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren.