In a life defined by educational advocacy and a spirit of volunteerism, Martha G. Bachman was not one to sit on the sidelines. “When I first started making suggestions to educators about ways to improve the system, they didn’t take me seriously,” she once reflected. “They told me I didn’t know enough because I wasn’t a professional. So I became a professional—a professional volunteer.” Born in 1924 in Indianapolis, Bachman turned the skepticism of others into the catalyst for her influential career.
School Founding in Mexico
Bachman traced her community organizer roots to 1945 when she helped establish the American School in Torreon, Mexico. “When we first moved to Mexico, I knew nothing about the language or the people there,” she said, “everything was a bit strange to say the least.” Bachman refused to be an observer. “I was one of 35 American parents who organized to form a first-rate school,” the mother of four said. “The school was open to Americans and Mexicans alike. This showed me that the more people get involved, the more they can change things.”
When her husband, Louis Bachman Sr., was transferred back to Wilmington by his employer, the DuPont Company, in 1954, Martha Bachman committed herself to improving Delaware’s educational landscape.
Martha G. Bachman’s indelible mark on educational advocacy spanned the next 37 years, with an emphasis on elevating the First States’ vocational and technical training. Her effective leadership led to multiple significant appointments. She was the first woman president of the Marshallton School Board and later became the first permanent chairwoman of the Delaware Advisory Council on Vocational Education in 1969. This state-level role gained her national recognition when President Richard Nixon appointed her the following year as the first woman to serve on the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education.
Her influence reached far beyond mere titles. Bachman was, as some have said, “the force behind the development and implementation of a full-time, county-wide vocational school district in Delaware.”
Bachman began her work in Delaware as a volunteer teacher’s aide at the Opportunity School for the Trainably Retarded, where she engaged deeply with the institution for six years. “I did whatever I could to help out at the school,” she recounted. “I just like to work with young people—they are our tomorrow.”
What lit the spark that made Martha Bachman want to transition from a teacher’s aide to a leader? Anger at politicians indifferent or hostile to education’s nuanced needs. “Some day, very soon,” she said in 1965, “we people in Delaware must decide whether our educational system is to be run by our professionals in the Department of Public Instruction, along with our State Board of Education, or by our General Assembly. If it is to be the latter, we are in for some real trouble.”
From Aide to Leader
She carried her principles into governance, firmly believing that “the public schools are obligated either to prepare students to go on to higher education or to offer a curriculum that will insure them a secure job when they graduate.” As the first Delaware Advisory Council on Vocational Education chair, Bachman played a critical role in shaping policies, programs, and practices in career and technical education in the state.
Martha Bachman was not one to mince words when it came to pointing out societal shortcomings. In a 1974 letter to the ‘Evening Journal,’ she castigated Delaware for its lack of support for public education and cultural activities. “We have the second highest non-white public-school population in the nation in the city of Wilmington. Yet, we turn our back on these schools and tell them to solve their own problems. We have a sorry record of increases in school funding being defeated at both the local district level and by our General Assembly.
“So, what is left to put in our brochure to sell Delaware as a wonderful place to work? And live? And play?”
The distinctions and honors Bachman received during her lifetime, such as the Order of the First State, were numerous. However, for Bachman, the real reward was the tangible change she could affect. “When you study something and know it thoroughly, people will start to listen to you,” she observed. This was most evident in her role in creating the New Castle County Vocational Technical District and the Delcastle Technical High School. “I believe that the thrust of vocational education should be to prepare our students to survive in a highly specialized and competitive job market,” she insisted.
Private Life, Public Impact
In her private life, she was as practical as she was passionate. Alongside her husband, Louis, Bachman described herself as a “dirt gardener,” an approach she also applied to her advocacy—plant the seeds and then say, “Grow, darn you, grow.”
Upon her death in 1998, those who knew Martha Bachman recognized that she had indeed planted seeds—seeds of reform, inclusion, and opportunity. They found it hard to believe she had crammed so much good into so few years. For Bachman, her work was not just an avocation; it was her life’s passion. And that voice, once underestimated, leaves an indelible mark.