By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
The term "odyssey" is customarily reserved for an extraordinary journey, and it seems appropriate in describing the life of Gladys Martines, a resident of Woodside.
Ms. Martines, now 78, was one of 14 children born to farm workers in the Santa Clara Valley in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Saddled with illiteracy and a youth living in tent camps, she picked fruit for 23 years.
She also went on to a career that engaged her in project management, architecture, land development and the local equestrian community. On Jan. 11, the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County named her the 26th "Outstanding Horseperson of the Year."
Ms. Martines will be feted at Atherton's Menlo Circus Club on Jan. 22, the fourth woman to be so honored by this men-only Woodside-based equestrian club. The award recognizes personal qualities such as an active role in the community, leadership in a profession or charity, and/or "outstanding" contributions to equestrian trails, facilities and horse-riding in San Mateo County.
The patrol "is deeply honored to present this year's award to Gladys Martines for her tireless, lasting contributions to our community for over 50 years, totally dedicated to improving and preserving our county's horse culture, trails and stabling," said spokesman and former award winner Bill Wraith in a statement.
Ms. Martines spoke with The Almanac from her ranch in Penn Valley, which is in Nevada County just west of Grass Valley.
A working childhood
To say that Ms. Martines has seen changes come to Silicon Valley is to understate the matter. How many people can drive by the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View and truthfully say that they once lived in a tent pitched on land now occupied by the Sears department store?
That was in the 1930s, when her family survived by picking greens and fruits, whatever was in season, Ms. Martines said. The family would seek work from April to November in what were then agricultural fields throughout the Santa Clara Valley. Another frequent camp site was near the Uvas Reservoir in Morgan Hill, she said.
She became "a daredevil," she said. "I've never had anything to lose. What worse could you do than living in a tent by the water?"
While she eventually bought property in Woodside after having been married at 16 and having born two children, those first 22 years had some rough spots.
Schooling, for example, did not happen for her. "That was the hardest part" of her childhood, she said. The long harvest season would not allow it. And she didn't want it. An accident with fireworks at age 4 had left her burned over 75 percent of her body, including her face. "I looked like an old lady," she said.
The movie and short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," about a man who is born old and grows younger, reminded her of herself, she said, and added: "Now my scars match my age."
Her mother would try to change her mind, but working was for her a refuge. "I became very, very good in the field," she said.
"I couldn't read, I couldn't write, I couldn't understand much of anything," she said. At 11, her older sister got her enrolled in a San Francisco school, but her first report card came back with all Fs. "That was the end of my school career," she said.
She settled in 1954 in Woodside, where she built a house and a barn on Turkey Farm Road. To make ends meet, she took what work came her way, including fence building and painting, house cleaning, ditch digging, and selling wine for wealthy landowners, she said.
Her rise began with a job with a vacuum tube manufacturer, for which she begged, she said. At the time, she could not fill out a job application, she told Bill Wraith, who wrote an account for The Almanac. She didn't know the difference between one half of something and one third of it.
But she learned. In four months, she was training new employees, Mr. Wraith said. After 10 years, she quit to try her hand at owning a working stable. Then she helped others in Woodside with their horse shelters, including 15 barns and more than 100 stalls. In the process, she helped develop Woodside's extensive system of horse trails, Mr. Wraith said.
Ms. Martines was chosen to oversee the subdivision of Woodside's Why Worry Farm in 1986, Mr. Wraith said. With her 2008 "horseperson" counterpart Rick Debenedetti, she helped preserve more trails in subdividing the Lawler estate.
She worked as a personal concierge for some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including John Sculley, chief executive of Apple Computer; the Weigand family, founders of Tandem Computer; and chief executive Craig Conway of PeopleSoft Corp.
Asked to explain the eclectic trajectory of her career, she could not. "It was God taking care of me," she said. "I don't know how I ever got started. … I just learned it. I asked a lot of questions. I learned and I learned."
Ms. Martines was instrumental in the construction of many barns and was a longtime equestrian.
Asked for a comment on horses, she replied: "They're the smartest and dumbest animals that ever lived. They're smart to get you off them and dumb to let you on in the first place."
She regularly reaches out to children of substance abusers by throwing them Christmas parties that include Santa Claus, toys, live music and hayrides, Mr. Wraith said. She offers her help to equestrian organizations throughout the Bay Area, including the Woodside Horse Owner's Association (WHOA), the Woodside Day of the Horse, and the Woodside junior rodeo.
The Charter Oaks Stables in Woodside has grown under her management with education and charitable events at no cost and with her sponsorship of food, beverages, and judges, Mr. Wraith said.
She found the stables afflicted by "poor management, filth, and cruelty to animals," he said. "Within two months of applying her high standards for cleanliness and safety, she turned it around to again be one the most glamorous, modern state of the art barns."
Said San Mateo County equestrian Holly Winnen in nominating Ms. Martines for the award: "It would be hard to find anyone who has had more impact on the horse culture of our county's community over the past 50 years!"