Martha Wayt, 93, steeplechase hostess, lifelong learner dies

Martha Wayt of Atlanta
Martha Wayt of Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of the family

Credit: Courtesy of the family

Tending a garden was a treasured pastime for Martha Wayt — as well as a metaphor for how she lived her life, family members said.

Whether it was raising a bumper crop of tomatoes and turning them into ketchup or coordinating and planting elaborate flower displays, she was not one to simply scratch a hole in the soil and toss a few seeds into it. Nope, it was doing the research and making preparations, then diving in and having fun.

“She wasn’t going to ask anybody else to do something that she wasn’t prepared to do,” said son Jim.

Family and friends said that connection to the land, to family, to friends, and to a panoply of hobbies and pursuits sprang from a genuine love for people and an insatiable intellectual curiosity about life and the world and spurred her to a tireless alphabet-soup of interests.

Among them: a deep, abiding faith and connection to the Episcopal church. Work for and hosting the Atlanta Steeplechase, once a major stop on Atlanta’s society and charity circuit. Teaching. A love of gardening and the land.

She brought kids with cerebral palsy to her family farm for lessons from the soil. She organized eco-learning trips for youngsters to Panola Mountain as part of her environmental work with the Georgia Conservancy. Bible study and instruction became a mainstay.

At age 60, she became a successful realtor, eventually joining her firm’s Million Dollar Club.

“She didn’t hesitate to get involved and be of service,” said nephew and Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Bo Emerson, “but she never sought the spotlight. "

Wayt, 93, died April 27 during a struggle with suspected brain cancer and after a life that family members said was marked by wonder and astonishment.

Daughter Marty McMullin said the choice of the word “wonder” was deliberate in describing her mother’s mindset.

And Wayt’s instructing kids in the classroom during a stint at Westminster School and on field trips trips bespoke her desire to instill that sense of wonder in others.

“She wanted them to explore, to discover with no guidelines, boundaries or shoulds,” she said.

McMullin painted her mother as a blend of contrasting northern and Southern sensibilities, her northern family branch running to poets, writers, philosophers and teachers, while the Southern side that leaned into the business world and Atlanta civic leadership. Both shared a commitment to service.

City-bred, The Vassar College graduate didn’t bat an eye when her husband took an interest in a piece of rural property that is now in the midst of Roswell.

“My grandfather had that farm and it caught my dad’s eye and that’s what he wanted to do,” said Jim. “She embraced it, going out there and living and not knowing a damn thing about it.”

Family members recall her going all-in, from supporting the cattle business to a consuming interest in gardening and shaping the land to riding herd over a menagerie of dogs, cats, chickens and horses. Oh, and helping raise four children.

A longtime love for horses led to her involvement with a northside fox hunting club and the creation of the Atlanta Steeplechase. Her husband was a co-founder. Martha handled an innumerable variety of details.

During a steeplechase, horses and riders hurtle around an oval course that features obstacles such as jumps over hedges and pools of water.
Atlanta Steeplechase
During a steeplechase, horses and riders hurtle around an oval course that features obstacles such as jumps over hedges and pools of water. Atlanta Steeplechase

Credit: Atlanta Steeplechase

Credit: Atlanta Steeplechase

“She’d attend the Steeplechase and, again, it’s on her property,” said former Steeplechase head George Chase Jr. “She’d walk up to strangers and ask who they were and what they were doing and they’d have no idea that she was the lady who owned the property.”

While her faith shined brightly and took an evangelical bent for a time, she was also a free thinker who eschewed dogma and constructed a meditative labyrinth in her back yard.

That helped forge a very personal relationship with the Almighty.

McMullin recalled that her mother told newcomers to the labyrinth that ‘There are no rules. Just open yourself up to God. Of course, if you want to make a grocery list that’s fine too.’ "

She herself approached each day with her own list-of tasks to be accomplished.

“Mom was very project-oriented and studied and made notes about everything.” recalled Jim Wayt.

That attention to detail also showed up in family matters.

“She was always taking photos and was a great documentarian,” said Emerson. On his 50th birthday, she gave him a detailed, homemade photo album tracing his life from age 4 to the half-century mark. Pictures of weddings, family reunions and costume parties formed a life mosaic.

“Then, I was told by (her daughter) she had done it for all 18 cousins. That’s a lot of siblings and nieces and nephews to keep track of.”

Wayt is survived by twin brother John Finley Kiser and children John Wayt III, Jim Wayt, Marty McMullin and Rebecca Buck, plus a number of grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by husband John and two siblings. A private memorial service is set for later this year.

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