Larger Than Life

The Altamont School brings together a collection of memories and short stories to honor the life of legendary educator and Altamont headmaster, Carl Martin Hames.

By Carolyn Sloss Ratliff, project director and publisher

Martin Hames left us 10 years ago in November.

After a conversation I had with a friend and fellow Trustee Board member, we agreed that even years after his death, our Altamont/ B.U.S./ Brooke Hill family had not had adequate opportunity to grieve the loss of Martin Hames.  Many of us still wanted to honor him in some meaningful way, Martin style — have a party, a celebration, with remembrances and art and abundant fare. But we needed something more tangible and lasting.

How fitting, then, that the seed for a biography about this amazing man took root at one of Melanie Grinney’s fabulous parties. There I saw Charles Gaines and Barry McRae, two people I knew could write rich stories about their relationships with Martin. He reigned for such a long time, though, that we would need many voices to paint a full, accurate portrayal. Maybe Warren St. John, Katherine Clark, Fannie Flagg and dozens of others who knew him well. And so the book began around a candlelit table with many colorful characters and lots of good food. Martin would have loved it!

Having graduated from Brooke Hill, the all-girls school that merged with B.U.S. to become Altamont School, I feel a great indebtedness for my fine education. I knew this was true of so many of the young men who had been lucky enough to work with Mr. Hames at B.U.S.  It seems the B.U.S. boys had lost their feeling of connection to the school, and it was my hope to locate many of them and begin a conversation about Mr. Hames that would reignite their memories.  A year later,  70-plus friends, colleagues, students and fellow travelers agreed to tell their stories and share their photographs, and this book took shape.

To keep his memory and influence alive, Larger than Life, this wonderful collection of personal essays, is a tribute to a unique man, a monumental teacher and a fierce advocate for education and the arts. Rarely does a person of such stature pass through our lives. We were lucky to have known him, to have him inspire us in such unforgettable ways. As one of his students from 30 years back said, “He whispers in my ear every day.”

The book’s “Publication Premiere” is scheduled for Friday, November 2, in The Hames Gallery at Altamont School (4801 Altamont Road South), Plans are presently in the works to “celebrate all things Martin.” After November 2, the book will be available for purchase at the school, as well as at local retailers and online at

Selected Excerpts:


No one came as often, or stayed as late, or pitched so wholeheartedly into opinions, conversations and wine as Martin did. And when we were not sitting up very late with him there, chewing over how the world works, we were doing it at his mother Mary’s house in West End, where he lived with her and his brother, William.

Eating Mary’s lasagna; moths beating against the screens of the wide front porch; big bottles of Gallo; conversations (with Mary’s cigarette voice and dagger wit, the brilliant Bill Balance’s kind and measured stories) that often went on until dawn; Martin sitting with one foot tucked under his then vast self, holding a Marlboro like Greta Garbo in one hand and a drink in the other, and steering those conversations from Greek history to Aubussons, from Philip Larkin to Franz Kline, with a Wildeian mixture of erudition, wit, venomous relish and hyperbole… Talk was what Martin was always best at. In those days he was a precocious and indefatigable genius at it.


In October of 2000, when I was still living in New Orleans, the editor of my book Milking the Moon had arrived from New York for a literary conference. Over the past year, we had talked on the phone for hours and exchanged countless emails about the editing of my manuscript. But we had never met one another. On the Friday night of his arrival, he came to my house for dinner. We hit it off in person just as well as we did long distance. At the end of the evening, however, I had to tell him that I was not going to be able to meet him in the French Quarter for Sunday brunch as planned.

“I just learned that my high school English teacher is in town,” I explained. “He’s here for some convention of private school principals, and Sunday at noon is the only time I can see him.”

“And your teacher from Birmingham takes precedence over your editor from New York?” Doug said, feigning offense.

“Well…” I said.

“Let me guess,” he said. “This man was the most important teacher in your life. He transformed your existence and inspired your future like no one else.”

All of this was quite true, but I only grinned, as I thought Doug was pulling clichés out of the hat until he added, “And this man weighs over 600 pounds.”

“What?!” I stared at him. “How on earth did you know?”

Doug laughed. “Katherine,” he said. “I have three authors who came from Birmingham, Alabama, and they all had the same damn English teacher.”


Martin embodied all the qualities of an educated person, including generosity. Around 1971, I wrote an article in The Birmingham News about a naive artist named Sybil Gibson. She had showed up at The News one day with a bundle of watercolors — mainly flowers, angels, birds and little girls — all painted on wet brown grocery bags. It didn’t take long to see this was a self-taught painter with an original eye and an inventive technical approach. Sybil, then in her late 60s or early 70s, had fallen on hard times.

A decade earlier, she had a well-reviewed show at a good gallery in Miami. By the time she came back to her native Alabama, she was supporting herself by working as a maid in a nursing home. When I wrote a lengthy article about Sybil in the Sunday paper, complete with color photos of her paintings, I heard immediately from Martin. He knew instinctively that folk artists often have a hard time coping with everyday life and supporting themselves.

He volunteered to mount a show for Sybil in a gallery at Birmingham University School. We promoted the show in The News, and Martin helped Sybil hang and price her work. Martin also collected money on the spot from the buyers, all of which went to Sybil, and she wound up making about $2,000, as I recall. Another of Martin’s friends, the attorney Hubert Grissom, helped Sybil secure an apartment in public housing.

With a new home and a nest egg, Sybil went on to a successful new phase of her artistic career, reunited with her family, and lived comfortably for the rest of her life.  I have two of her later paintings in my home in Pennsylvania, and whenever I see them, I think of Sybil and of Martin’s kindness.


The memories of these moments are so vivid not just because the punch lines were so memorable, but because of Mr. Hames’s innate theatricality. He seemed to have some sense that he was starring in his own drama, one in which he just happened to mingle with the audience. He knew how to flare his eyebrows in a comic-book rendering of anger or indignation. His smile was a klieg light of affirmation. Even the titles he gave his classes — From Giotto to Tallyrand, America in the 20th Century — had an entertainer’s braggadocio. His laugh and his expressions of anger were equally explosive and therefore unforgettable. Whether reading Capote stories or simply recounting his own, he had an actor’s sense of timing. He could draw out a line for effect in a way that would seem ridiculous if anyone else tried it but that seemed entirely appropriate when he did. He was a comic character even (maybe especially) when he was angry — or feigning anger, as he sometimes did to register his indignation at pranks and other misbehavior that on some level he seemed to secretly appreciate. I’m thinking here of his response to my class’s senior prank, which involved building a wall of concrete blocks across the main hallway at Altamont, an obstruction that required students and faculty to take a long detour downstairs until the wall was dismantled. Mr. Hames’s outrage at the prank was entirely unconvincing. He seemed rather to admire it.

And yet for an unapologetic showman, Martin Hames’s effect on the lives of his students was real, profound and, in many cases, life-changing. This was in part because so few of us had ever been exposed to such a dedicated and genuine polymath — a man who had covered nearly every inch of wall space in his small home with the works of artists he admired and championed; a man who directed plays year-in and year-out; who led tours of Egypt and Greece (both of which I went on), and of college campuses all over the country; who loved books and films and music and food and drink and perhaps above all, company. He took incredible pride in Altamont and genuinely wanted the school to live up to its name as a kind of citadel of learning. His girth — which he could use as a source of both physical intimidation and disarming self-deprecation — was a paradigm of his appetite for life. He wanted students to want more, the way he did.


“It’s Sydney Greenstreet! It’s Sydney Greenstreet!” the boys screamed as they chased the fat man, lumbering down Broadway, barreling over, through, around the perplexed crowds — who either knew Sydney Greenstreet was long dead so this 400-pound Gargantua was a ghost or had never heard of Sydney Greenstreet so this unstoppable phenomenon of nature was a horrible vision that all knew would not go away soon — until the beat policeman stepped in, stopped him with a whistle, certain that he was completely drunk, but finding that he was only Martin Hames, the schoolmaster to a rowdy group of Birmingham University School boys. In the spring of 1967 they were seeing New York City, and people and places and things he had told us about, for the first time. Some claimed to have seen Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but I think they were lying. Who cares? The world had become a great dream come true for us that spring, and it was Hames who made that magic happen.


Martin could be a loyal friend and a fierce foe. There was very little in between. After eight years of teaching, I left when Martin and I had gotten turned sideways. But to this day, the man who inspired me as a student and encouraged me as a colleague is one who continues to loom larger than life in my life. I see a certain piece of art, read a particular author or remember one of his exaggerated pronouncements in a given situation, and my mind flashes to him. When I finished writing my recent book, Grace and Grit, I dreamed I ran into his office shouting, “Guess what? Guess what? I just wrote a book, and it’s 87,000 words!”


Martin famously and frequently called his students “barbarians.” If we misbehaved, he could slap us with that name, shouting it in shrill anger. If we did not get his class lesson, he could exhort us by calling us that name, uttering it in total exasperation. He would let the epithet fly in a variety of circumstances and a variety of tones, signaling displeasure, impatience and even affection.

Yes, affection.

One of Martin’s best-known goals as a teacher was to instill in his students a sophisticated, discriminating view of the world. “Barbarian” was his term of scorn for the primitive state in which most of us came to him. Yet it was also a term of endearment. Something about our rawness amused him.

So at times, when he decried our “barbarian” behavior, I remember the hint of a smile or a twinkling eye softening his stern expression. He had his own mischievous side, and while he demanded our best efforts, he did not demand conformity. In subtle ways, he meant to encourage our “barbaric” qualities. He wanted us to challenge authority and pretension; he wanted us to be self-sufficient, to be survivors.

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