By Emily Freehling
For a college admissions officer, freshman move-in day is one of the two best days of the year, recalled Martin A. “Marty” Wilder Jr.
“We would always fan out across campus and help people move in and carry boxes,” said Wilder, who retired in 2017 after a 38-year career at the university that started in admissions. “We knew those students personally.”
Wilder came to Mary Washington in 1979 as an assistant dean of admissions. Over nearly four decades, the school’s reputation and his career evolved side by side as he rose through the ranks, eventually serving his last seven years as chief of staff to presidents Rick Hurley and Troy Paino.
Wilder has worked for six of Mary Washington’s 10 presidents. When he started, the school was led by Prince B. Woodard, who encouraged Wilder to pursue a doctorate as he was just getting started in his career.
Wilder also credits Senior Vice President Emeritus Conrad Warlick with providing strong mentorship – and for hiring him.
Warlick recalls interviewing Wilder just before he departed for a camping trip in Canada, evidence of a passion for travel that Wilder continues to pursue.
Warlick was so eager to hire him that he tracked down Wilder’s father in Roanoke through directory assistance and told him that if he had any word from his son during his trek through the wilderness, to please let him know he had a job at Mary Washington.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Warlick said.
Wilder got great fulfillment from the role admissions played in helping Mary Washington carve out a niche in the competitive world of higher education, becoming more selective and striving for greater diversity in its student body.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mary Washington was in transition. It had gone co-ed in 1970, and in 1972 it had become independent, terminating its role as the women’s branch of the University of Virginia.
“All of a sudden, Mary Washington had to forge its own identity and its own niche in higher education in Virginia,” Wilder said.
From early on, Wilder felt the school’s leaders had a solid understanding of what would distinguish Mary Washington from other institutions.
It sought to be the state’s premier public liberal arts school, with a commitment among its faculty and leadership to forge close relationships with students, and to foster close relationships among students.
To carry this message to potential enrollees, Wilder and his colleagues hired recent Mary Washington graduates to go on the road.
One of the first recruiters hired was Vicky Nichols ’80, who would become Wilder’s wife.
“It was always good that she did that semester of recruiting, because she had a pretty good idea of what I did,” Wilder said. The couple has three adult children, two of whom graduated from UMW: Nicole, Tori ’12, and Maggie ’15.
Wilder also credits targeted programs at the university for helping shape the student body. The Honors Admission plan, a precursor to the Honors Program begun under President Hurley, helped UMW attract highly talented students. The Rappahannock Scholars Program, begun in 2008, makes a Mary Washington education possible for students who are the first in their families to attend college, or who otherwise could not afford it.
The other best day of the year for an admissions officer is commencement day. That’s when Wilder watched the individuals he’d counseled as high schoolers walk across the stage, transformed by their time at UMW.
At 2018 commencement, the tables were turned. That day, Wilder was named chief of staff emeritus. Soon after, during reunion weekend, he was made an honorary member of his wife’s class of 1980.
“I consider myself very blessed to have had a 38-year career at a place that I came to love so much,” Wilder said. “Mary Washington is an extraordinary place, and I will always be grateful for the central role that it has played in my life and for my family.”