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Longtime Hall auto dealer Milton Martin dies at 91
Milton Martin
From left, Milton Martin Honda Dealer Principal Jim Foote, founder Milton Martin Sr, and dealer manager Butch Miller are pictured at the dealership in the early 1990s. Martin died Monday, Sept. 14, at the age of 91. (Courtesy Butch Miller)

Upon hearing of his friend’s death, the Rev. Tom Smiley of Lakewood Baptist Church started perusing his file of correspondences with Milton Martin Sr. In nearly 30 years, the stack is now thick with hundreds of letters, cards and prayer requests from a man Smiley described as incredibly generous and spiritual.

"I can just hear his laugh now,” Smiley said. “He loved life. He enjoyed life. He loved people, everybody."

Martin, a Gainesville auto industry magnate of nearly 60 years and the namesake for both the Honda and Toyota franchises, died Monday, Sept. 14. He was 91. 

Milton Martin and his wife, Damaris, were married for 69 years and would have celebrated their 70th anniversary on Christmas Eve.

His family includes six children, 24 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

“My Papa grew up working on farms during The Great Depression,” said Tommy Martin, the oldest grandchild and one of the owners of Milton Martin Toyota. “He was the first to lend a hand for any job, and it’s where I learned the value of working hard, living life with passion and the importance of integrity.  He always said he got into the car business because of how much he cared for people.  Our family has continued his commitment of serving people for (three) generations and we are honored to carry on his name and his legacy.”

Martin made his entry into the industry in 1961, when he purchased a used car dealership in downtown Gainesville. Nine years later, he bought the Toyota franchise, according to the company’s online history. In 1989, he added the Honda franchise to his portfolio, according to longtime employees and business records.

Today, the Toyota dealership is owned by his sons, Mike and Ricky Martin, as well as his grandson, Tommy Martin. State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and Milton’s son-in-law, Jim Foote, acquired the Honda dealership and finished the buyout around 2000, Foote said.

“He was kind enough to allow us to continue to operate under his name,” Foote said. “We have been trying to do business the way Mr. Martin taught us back in the day. The customer was very important. The customer was king. You take care of the customer, and the business will take care of itself."


“We are a family-owned and operated business, so his DNA is present in our values, our heart for our community and is our care for our customers. Our prayers are with the Martin family today for the loss of such a visionary man and the patriarch of their family,” a Facebook post reads. “For those who knew Milton, his passion for the car business was born through a passion to serve people. He will be greatly missed but our commitment is to continue his legacy.” 

Milton Martin Honda also took to social media on Tuesday to offer its respects, saying Martin had "a heart to serve," and "truly worked to make a difference in the lives of others."

The Toyota franchise posted about the death of its founder on social media on Monday.

“We are a family-owned and operated business, so his DNA is present in our values, our heart for our community and is our care for our customers. Our prayers are with the Martin family today for the loss of such a visionary man and the patriarch of their family,” a Facebook post reads. “For those who knew Milton, his passion for the car business was born through a passion to serve people. He will be greatly missed but our commitment is to continue his legacy.” 

Milton Martin Honda also took to social media on Tuesday to offer its respects, saying Martin had "a heart to serve," and "truly worked to make a difference in the lives of others."

"While Milton Martin Honda ownership transitioned in the 90s, Milton had a profound impact on the Milton Martin Honda family. As the father-in-law of one of our owners, Jim Foote, the Martin family will always be a special part of Milton Martin Honda," the company's Facebook post reads. "Our hearts go out to Malinda and Jim Foote and the entire Martin family as they mourn the loss of such a remarkable man. While Milton may no longer be with us, his legacy, and the impact he made will be felt for generations to come."

Caryl Roark, Milton Martin Honda’s controller, started working for Martin 50 years ago. She said she remembered telling him she and her husband had a new baby. He in turn showed a picture of his wife and six children on his desk.

That family value was essential to Martin’s philosophy, Roark said. A highlight of the year was the Christmas dinner with employees and their families, and a photographer would take portraits of the families.

"Family was important to him. ... He looked after his family, and he expected you to look after your family,” Roark said.

Almost any story of Milton Martin often involves his anonymous acts of charity. Roark recalled a gift of a few hundred dollars to a single mother at Christmas or some name-brand tennis shoes for some boys in need.

This was instilled by Milton Martin’s parents, who often had travelers stopping by their farmhouse, Smiley said.

"They may be eating that night cornbread and butter peas, and his mother would always make an extra pan for the people that would often stop by," Smiley said.

Miller started working for Martin in 1993, describing him as a “bigger than life individual.”

"When he walked in the room, people noticed,” Miller said.

There were countless families, single mothers or just people down on their luck who got help from Martin on getting transportation to and from work, Miller said. Smiley recalled Martin’s support for pastors, whether it was assisting someone in need of repair work or a loaned car for a visiting missionary.

"Mr. Martin was not afraid of hard work,” Miller said. “I can remember him not only financing cars for people who were down on their luck but hiring people who were down on their luck and giving them an opportunity."

Regarding his business strategy, Martin believed in “equipping” people, Miller said, getting young men and women in the community the training and support to launch their careers. Martin would give people guidance but also the space to sink or swim on their own, Foote said.

"He changed the trajectory of my life,” Miller said. “He gave me an opportunity in the Honda business and ultimately made me a partner in the Honda business. I could have never, ever accomplished that without Milton Martin."

Memorial Park Funeral Home in Gainesville will be handling the arrangements, and a funeral service has been scheduled for Oct. 3 at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville.

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