A legendary Elkhart figure delivered inspiration to Norman Vincent Peale

(Elkhart Public Library proudly supports “Legends of Michiana: The Martin Family” on WNIT-TV.)

One of the most influential authors of the 20th Century, Norman Vincent Peale instructed generations to believe in “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

The legendary pastor, who was close friends with one president and guided another to believe in himself, spent nearly a year atop the New York Times nonfiction list with his greatest work. He reached millions through his magazine Guideposts and through the sermons he offered from the pulpit at Marble Collegiate Church in New York. 

But who influenced this American thought leader? 

Elkhart businessman Ross Martin, who was a best seller in his own right.

Ross Martin of NIBCO with his Book of Golden Deeds Award

“I have never met a man like Ross Martin who has such a wide range of solid knowledge,” Dr. Peale said on April 25, 1966. “Ross is truly an inspiration. … (He) is a perfect example” of a man who maintains his vitality and energy throughout a long life by reading, studying, observing and thinking, as reported by Janet Bosworth in the next day’s Elkhart Truth.

“Ross is proof that a man can stay vital and energetic by being interested in the world about him, and by having faith in God,” Peale said to the crowd of 400 gathered in Hotel Elkhart’s Athenian Ballroom for the Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds Award ceremony.

Martin had made an indelible mark on the residential plumbing industry. Under his leadership as NIBCO president from 1927-57, the Elkhart manufacturer flourished as the trusted producer of practical fittings, valves, and flow controls. 

But it was Martin’s extraordinary demonstrations of philanthropy – particularly for Elkhart Public Library – that had led to the Exchange Club’s recognition that spring evening.

‘The sixth step’

One day in 1954, Martin visited attorney D. Russell Bontrager with a philosophy in hand and an idea in mind.

“He came to me almost apologetically,” Bontrager recalled. Martin clearly stated his plan that day – the six steps in the development of the industrial man. According to The Truth’s account, Martin prescribed the following:

* Step 1 – Working in a job shop with integrity
* Step 2 – Rising to the level of foreman and directing others
* Step 3 – Saving money
* Step 4 – Buying a business to grow personally and professionally
* Step 5 – Committing to the overall betterment of employees
* Step 6 – Engaging in philanthropy

“When Ross came to me, he said, ‘I’m not sure I’m ready,’” Bontrager recalled, “‘but I’d like to try the sixth step.’”

Martin’s wife, Esther, had been an influential member of the library board – her service to the community in that role spanned 1943-77. By the mid 1950s, a new downtown library was needed to replace the Carnegie building.

The Martins led the way to finance the $1 million building project. Seven years after the talk in Bontrager’s office, ground was broken at the southeast corner of Second and High streets – the former location of the First Presbyterian Church, and right across the street from the Carnegie library.

The downtown library, dedicated March 31, 1963, still honors the Martin legacy with a marker in the entryway.

The Truth described Ross Martin’s comments during the library dedication in this way: “To cultivate and stimulate an inquiring mind: to arrive at the basis for the solution of problems, and to create something of lasting beauty. Martin sparked the ‘guiding light’ symbol with a quotation, ‘Books are the lamps that never go out,’ from the book, ‘Days of Our Years,’ by Pierre van Paassen.”

The Martins believed the library had a responsibility to be a place for artistic inspiration. The Truth reported Ted Drake, the noted designer and artist from Elkhart, contributed an “elaborate history lesson” with his mural depicting creation, migration and civilization.

The 1966 Exchange Club program

“Ross Martin is someone who had truly given of himself throughout his lifetime,” said Bontrager, who had been a National Exchange Club president. “He has performed a myriad of golden deeds.”

And, Bontrager told the dinner crowd Martin’s personal motto: “The best product of NIBCO is a good man.”

Lasting positivity

So, how did this deep connection between a small-town entrepreneur and a world-renowned pastor develop? 

Martin traveled extensively throughout his career as a leader in the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Sales Executive International Conference, and the International YMCA. A 1962 visit to the Holy Land appears to have been critical in the development of the close friendship between Martin and Peale. Then, the next year, the men went around the world together, even stopping in Taiwan for tea with Chiang Kai-shek.

Martin told The Truth he attended services at Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church every time he visited New York. Though Peale was busy writing and speaking countless times throughout the week, he found time to visit Martin, as well. In 1964, for example, Peale made two speaking stops in Elkhart – one as the featured guest at the NIBCO annual meeting, another for the company’s 60th anniversary celebration at the Elco Theatre.

“I am doubly honored today,” Martin told a Truth reporter for the April 25, 1966, edition. “I feel personally honored that Dr. Peale could find time in his busy schedule to speak here tonight, and I feel honored that the Exchange Club chose me for its award.”

When Peale arrived in Elkhart for the Book of Golden Deeds presentation, “The Power of Positive Thinking” had sold more than 3 million copies. Today, that number is closer to 20 million. 

Elkhart Public Library keeps nearly two dozen copies of Peale’s writings in circulation. In 2020 – perhaps a year when the idea of positive thinking was most desperately needed – at least one of the library’s copies of his cornerstone work has been off the shelves almost every week. Three of his other books – “The Power of Positive Living,” “A Guide to Confident Living,” and “Bible Power for Successful Living” – all have been checked out in 2020 at triple the rate of typical years.