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A Trojan connection forged in love and service

Studying at USC Dornsife brought Linda and Harlan Martens together. More than four decades later, they are still bound by their love for each other and the university

Linda and Harlan Martens
Linda and Harlan Martens, who met as undergraduates at USC, will be celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

Linda Martens remembers the first time she set eyes on the man who would become her husband. The year was 1967, and she was an undergraduate at USC Dornsife,  enrolled in an early morning comparative religion course. Class started promptly at 8 a.m.

“It was really early,” recalled Linda, who was a history major. “I signed up for it, but I had a feeling I might not make it to every one of those classes, so I needed a way to stay up to date should I miss it.”

From day one, she noticed an attentive young man in the lecture hall who always sat in the fourth row. “By week three, I thought we needed to get acquainted. So I sat down next to him.” That attentive student was Harlan Martens.

“Obviously we did get acquainted and, yes, I did borrow his notes,” she said. “The rest of it, as they say, is history.”

Harlan added, “The funny part of that story is that Linda got an A in the class and I got a B.”

Love blooms on Child’s Way

The two USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences alumni — who have been married 45 years this year — have an enviable rapport, finishing each other’s sentences and encouraging each other to share their USC experiences.

However, they didn’t actually start dating until nearly three years after that class, when a chance meeting on campus brought them together.

Linda had just completed her degree in history and Harlan was on his way to earning his bachelor’s in economics. Linda had taken a job on campus working for the events office, and every afternoon someone on staff would pick up soft drinks and snacks.

“It was my day to get the drinks,” Linda said. “I remember walking, carrying a tray of Cokes, and there’s Harlan walking across campus. We recognized each other, so we stopped and chatted for a bit.”

Linda was moving to a new apartment with her roommate that weekend and asked if he would help them out.

We were meant to meet out there on Child’s Way.

Linda Martens

“We never expected to see him, but he showed up that Saturday,” Linda said. “I thought, ‘I bet he’s going to ask me out.’” And he did. “That’s what really got us started. We were meant to meet out there on Child’s Way.”

The couple was married two years later in August 1972. In 1974, Harlan earned a law degree from the USC Gould School of Law, interrupted by a stint in the armed services and then took a job as an attorney for ExxonMobil. Soon after, his work required that they move to Anchorage, Alaska — a substantial change for the couple who both spent their formative years in Southern California.

“We packed up our two cats and away we went,” Harlan said. “It was a neat experience.”

Two paths lead to USC

Eventually the Martens settled down outside of Houston, Texas, where they live now. But they both grew up around Los Angeles — Harlan in Pasadena and Linda in Fullerton.

It was a chance conversation between Linda’s father and the owner of their local Texaco gas station that cemented her future as a Trojan. She had applied to several colleges but wasn’t really committed to any of them. When her father stopped to fill his gas tank one day, the owner inquired about Linda’s college plans and suggested she visit USC. He had a daughter, also named Linda, who attended and she could show her around.

Linda took him up on his offer and his daughter hosted her on campus, taking her to her dorm and the dining hall, and introducing her to her friends.

“I spent the whole day with her and that did it right there,” Linda said. “I didn’t want to go anyplace else. I got my application in as soon as possible.”

Harlan’s path to USC was more traditional. He applied to several universities in California and ultimately chose the one he felt most passionate about attending. Initially, he planned to pursue a degree in business but quickly changed his major to economics after taking an introductory macroeconomics class.

“I was a natural at it and I really enjoyed it,” he said.

Giving back

Along with a lifelong union, Linda and Harlan’s USC Dornsife experiences fostered a desire to support the university.

Harlan finds inspiration from his mother Virginia, who was a model of community service for him.

“She was always volunteering, whether it was at the hospital, a retirement home, the church or elsewhere,” he said. “I grew up seeing that it was important to give back.”

His mother also served as a docent and later as a president of the society overseeing the historic Gamble House in Pasadena operated by USC.

Linda has also dedicated her time to volunteering and community service with both local and national organizations such as the National Charity League, where she served as president for two years, and the Association of Junior Leagues International.

The two have also been steadfast supporters of USC. They are USC Associates and supported the naming of Martens Plaza, located near Leavey Library. In 2013, their gift established the Linda and Harlan Martens Endowed Director’s Chair for the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute at USC Dornsife. Their endowment of the Linda and Harlan Martens Economic History Forum helped draw dozens of leading economists, accountants, scholars and politicians from around the world to a global summit on the Greek economic crisis in April 2014.

Most recently they provided a generous $15 million gift to launch the Martens Scholars Program, a scholarship and fellowship program that will support current and future generations of students, providing full and partial tuition for undergraduates, as well as one- and two-year fellowships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

The couple sees the university as a special marker of their mutual past and as a steward for future generations.

“We have focused in on USC Dornsife because it’s something that is common to both of us, and so it’s something that we feel strongly about,” Harlan said. He also noted that the college’s academic reach is extensive, touching the sciences, social sciences and humanities. “There is such a broad spectrum there of how people can develop their talents and skills that the College came to be a natural place for us to invest in USC.”

The two occasionally make the trip to campus, but they have also found their Trojan Family in Texas. Harlan previously served as president of USC Alumni Club of Houston, and he continues to participate in the annual USC Alumni Day of SCervice, when thousands of Trojans gather across the globe to make a difference in their communities.

Their Trojan Family even extends to the next generation: Their daughter Meg earned her master of management in library and information science from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2016.

Meg recently brought Linda and Harlan a memento to celebrate their Trojan pride. It waves proudly outside of their house.

“I will tell you in Houston, Texas, there are not that many USC flags flying around, but we are proud of it,” Harlan said. “We occasionally run into someone who has a USC sweatshirt, and every time I see that I say, ‘Fight On.’ It’s a matter and pride and fellowship with the Trojan Family.”

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A Trojan connection forged in love and service

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