Story by Norm Cannada
Photos by David Barnes
Retirement is certainly not slowing down Martha Nesbitt.
Nesbitt, who retired in 2012 as president of Gainesville State College (now University of North Georgia Gainesville campus), continues to live in Gainesville and stays active serving on the boards of Northeast Georgia Health System, Lakeview Academy and the Elachee Nature Science Center, while also traveling, enjoying exercise, golf and other church and community activities.
With all of her busyness, she said her husband, Pete, may not always be convinced she is actually retired.
“The year after I retired, I was getting up and going to a hospital meeting at 7:30 (a.m.) and Pete said, ‘Well you might as well not be retired,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, no. I go to this meeting at 7:30 and before, I had to go from there to the office. Now, I get to come home.”
For Nesbitt, retirement means “being able to do the things I want to do.”
It’s just that there is a lot she wants to do.
“I can pick and choose what I want to do and I do what gives me the most pleasure,” she said. “I also really like to help other people in one way or another, so being involved in the community helps me with that. I like being involved; I’ve got a high energy level, which I’m very fortunate. I certainly thank the good Lord for my good health because if you retire and have bad health, that’s no fun at all.”
Nesbitt’s community involvement in retirement follows 15 years as president of Gainesville College and then Gainesville State College, where she led the school from an enrollment of 2,800 to about 8,000, a move to state college status, opened a second campus in Oconee County, and led the school to achieve tobacco-free status. In addition, she was active and held leadership positions in the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Gainesville and a variety of other groups while serving in her busy day job. In fact, the day she retired as president of the college was also her last day as president of the Rotary Club.
“I found Gainesville to be a very giving community when I came,” Nesbitt said. “People wanted to get me involved and, as president, I wanted to be involved.”
Nesbitt will be honored Sept. 14 for her involvement and community service over the years as the 2017 recipient of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Council on Aging’s third-annual Quality of Life Award. The award recognizes Nesbitt for “her commitment to improving the quality of life for residents throughout Gainesville and Hall County,” according to a statement released by the council.
Phillippa Lewis Moss, administrative director for the council on aging, called Nesbitt, “the quintessential quality of life candidate.”
“She has dedicated her life to higher education; she has literally educated two generations of Georgians and U.S. residents,” she said.” In addition to that, she has been involved in a number of volunteer efforts. Even in retirement, she has continued to give, so when we discussed possible candidates, she shone like a bright star.”
Nesbitt said she was “surprised” when Moss called to say she had been selected for the award.
”I did think about the fact that it’s being given by the council on aging, so I think you have to be a little aged to receive the award, but that’s OK,” Nesbitt said. “I can think of a lot of people who frankly are more deserving than I am, who grew up in Gainesville and through the years contributed so many things.”
A native of Decatur, Nesbitt’s career has focused primarily on higher education, including serving faculty member, vice president for academic affairs and acting president at DeKalb Community College (now Georgia Perimeter College) and then serving for a year as special assistant to then-University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen Portch before coming to Gainesville in 1997.
“I felt like I had won the Emmy when I got it,” Nesbitt said of being selected for the Gainesville job. “My years at DeKalb were good years, but I view them more as really giving me the experience that I tried to put to good use when I was president. I really felt blessed to have that as the capstone in my career in higher education.”
During her 15 years at the college, Nesbitt saw the school nearly triple in growth, add the second campus and add new buildings on the campus, one of which now bears her name. She remembers learning that the fourth academic building completed in 2011 would be renamed the Martha T. Nesbitt Academic Building at a gala in her honor just before she retired.
“I have never been as surprised in my life,” she said. “Thrilled is an understatement.”
Along with opening the Oconee campus and moving to state college status, Nesbitt said she is most proud of the decision made in 2003 to make the college tobacco free. Gainesville became the first college in Georgia and one of the first five in the nation to make that move.
“I’m just proud that we did that,” Nesbitt said. “A university is supposed to stand for a good mind and a good body and we know that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health that’s legal. It just seemed like the right thing do.”
She also remembered graduations fondly.
“Some of my happiest memories at the college were graduations,” she said. “It was always so reaffirming to see the students who had completed their degrees and the happy families who accompanied them at graduation.”
She has enjoyed being active in the community, but has also made time for herself, family and friends in retirement including traveling. She said she remembers fondly a trip to Ireland in the fall after she retired and one to Norway in 2014.
As she thought about the award she will receive in September and her own life, Nesbitt said she believes “balance” has been important for her..
“One thing I think that has really helped my quality of life during my career and after my career is I try to achieve a balance,” she said. “My family has always been very important. My husband, bless his heart, has always been so supportive. And while my children now live far away, we’re still close and I would always make time to go see them and do things with Pete, and not become a workaholic.”
Nesbitt is scheduled to receive the award at the 2017 Quality of Life ceremony set for 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at the First Baptist Church Banquet Hall. For tickets, contact Moss at 770-503-3340.