By DOUG McINTYRE - Calgary Sun
Martha Hart during a recent interview. Photo by Lyle Aspinall, Sun Media
"You just have to get through today. You just have to live one day at a time."
Such heartfelt wisdom, imparted by her mother, was the lifeboat Martha Hart clung to a decade ago when cruel fate left the love of her life -- and the dreams they shared -- dead in a wrestling ring.
For longtime Calgarians, it seems hard to believe almost 10 years have passed since home-grown pro wrestler Owen Hart plummeted 23 metres to his death in a stunt gone horribly awry at a World Wrestling Federation show in Kansas City.
The senseless tragedy of May 23, 1999 made international headlines and Martha a widow at 32, left alone to raise two young children.
"It’s interesting because in some ways it feels like such a short period of time -- in other ways, it feels like it was a lifetime ago," Martha reflects at her Elbow Valley home -- the very home she and Owen were merely five days away from moving into on that terrible spring day in 1999.
"That’s what kept me focused in my darkest moments," she says of her late mother Joan Patterson’s advice.
"I just had to worry about what’s right in front of me right now."
The shattered widow had plenty of worries in the immediate aftermath of losing her high school sweetheart.
She launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the WWF -- now World Wrestling Entertainment -- that saw her awarded a US$18-million settlement.
Yet her campaign for justice put her at odds with some members of Calgary’s famous Hart wrestling clan, prompting a very public war of words.
In the meantime, she spearheaded a charitable foundation in her late husband’s name and raised son Oje, now almost 17, and daughter Athena, now 13.
Now close to completing a PhD in social and developmental psychology at England’s prestigious Cambridge University, Martha marks the tumultuous past decade as one of struggle and, ultimately, hard-won triumph.
"You cannot only survive, you can thrive," she says.
"Life can be very unpredictable. Certainly for me, and for Owen, we had this amazing life planned together."
Describing the relationship of Owen and Martha Hart as a fairytale romance is no exaggeration.
Martha admits she was smitten the moment she met her future husband, the youngest of 12 children raised by wrestling patriarch Stu Hart and his wife, Helen.
"For me, it was love at first sight ... I guess when you’re a teenager all that matters is, ‘he’s cute and he has a car,’" chuckles Martha, who has never remarried. "We were inseparable, really."
Martha says as the relationship progressed, she was deeply moved by the unfailingly kind young man -- a reluctant gladiator, she adds, in the grappling spectacle that made his family famous.
Owen was taking education at the University of Calgary in the mid 1980s when he began wrestling professionally. Martha says Owen stepped into the ring to give a boost to dad Stu’s Stampede Wrestling promotion, a decades-old Prairies sporting staple then sagging due to the WWF’s popularity.
"Our lives touched that world but we never embraced it -- it wasn’t a career for him, it was a job," she says.
"But life can just pick you up and carry you off before you know it."
Martha wistfully believes Owen, were he alive today, would not be a wrestler or a teacher, but perhaps a humble craftsman given how he used to fashion bicycles from little more than scrap metal.
"I think he would’ve been happy just to have a little shop and putter away, letting the hours slip by."
As she approaches the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death, Martha takes solace in two things -- her children and the Owen Hart Foundation.
Athena, Martha and Oje Hart. Photo by Lyle Aspinall, Sun Media
Bearing a striking resemblance to his dad, Oje enjoys playing guitar, saxophone and piano, and plays rugby at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir school.
He’s attending an upcoming summer camp at the University of Boston, with the teen interested in pursuing either journalism or law.
Athena is also musically talented and has a passion for horseback riding.
Next year, she will attend school in Springbank after living across the pond with her mother as she continued her own studies at Cambridge.
Seeing her children forging ahead, their lives replete with various endeavours, represents a payoff for Martha after those dark hours of despair when she sought comfort in her own mother’s words and her sister Virginia’s support.
"I decided very early on that the children were the primary focus," says Martha.
"Now the children are really coming into their own and developing into the people they’re going to be."
Oje and Athena have persevered in the absence of a father, snatched far too early from their young lives.
Owen Hart sinks into a Sharpshooter. Submitted photo.
The Owen Hart Foundation, however, has made an indelible imprint.
"They didn’t have the father figure, they were very young, but it’s been something I could always direct their attention to, almost as a silhouette," says Martha.
Launched in late 2000 with $2 million from the WWF settlement, the charity has had a positive impace on many lives across Calgary.
Among its initiatives is the awarding of $4,000 post-secondary bursaries each year to 10 Forest Lawn high school students. The scholarship is open to students with a 70% or better average who juggle a part-time job with their studies.
"My whole direction with the foundation is, we are a charity but we want people to be able to help themselves," says Martha. "Because education is so important to me, as it was to Owen, that was an area we wanted to make our focus."
The foundation epitomizes the generosity of its namesake, who on the wrestling circuit once gave his hotel room to a homeless man.
"The paramount cause and reason was to have this amazing legacy for Owen and to reflect the type of person he was, the kindness he exuded," says Martha, adding the foundation has played a major role in her own healing.
"The hardest thing about losing him was it was so sudden ... you have all this love still, and you don’t know what to do with it. It’s helped me as much as it’s helped the people who ended up being the recipients of the foundation."
And if Owen could see the good works done in his name, Martha is sure he would be bursting with pride.
"He would be overwhelmed with how many people it’s helped and so pleased to be remembered for all the good qualities he had," she says.
"I think he would have been so proud to have made a difference."
Credit: Slam! Wrestling