Ernest Martin Jr. died protecting his family.

His wife and two daughters were riding with him the night of June 25 when his Jeep came upon another vehicle on Bear Wallow Hill Road.

Martin swerved to avoid a head-on collision. The Jeep rolled and the family became trapped inside.

Linda and their two young daughters, Abigail and Lydia, were able to escape with the help of passers-by, a witness reported. They were taken to Columbus Regional Hospital and released with no serious injuries.

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Ernest Martin, 36, died at the scene due to blunt force trauma, Brown County Coroner Earl Piper said.

The second driver, Joseph Lucas, 20, of Brown County, was not injured, the accident report said.

Lucas told police he swerved to the right as far as he could when he saw Martin’s vehicle come around the curve, but he might have misjudged it. The front left corner of his Bonneville struck the rear left corner of Martin’s Jeep, and the Jeep lost a tire and flipped over, landing on its top, the report said.

“All four of them could have gotten taken away,” said Ernest Martin’s mother, Clara Martin of Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I’m the parent. I was supposed to go first. This was not supposed to happen. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Linda and Ernest met when they were 18. They have a son due in November.

“He was just always there for me from the very beginning,” Linda wrote about her husband on the family’s GoFundMe page.

“Please keep us all in your prayers,” she wrote. “Just trying to focus on our babies like he’d want me to. Trying to figure out how to do life without him.”

Bright spot

Ernest Martin Jr. always had a smile on his face and a hug ready, his coworkers said.

He had been the pastor at Gnaw Bone Wesleyan Church for seven years. His mother said he “got the call” to become a preacher at 16.

“You know how teenagers are, (but) we did not have any problems out of that child. … Even at the age of 16, he wanted to make sure that people would see his life as a Christian and he wanted to set a good example,” she said.

“With him being a preacher, he always wanted to make sure people knew the plan of salvation and that they would accept Jesus into their heart.”

Martin also worked as a family support specialist at Centerstone in Nashville, and worked in Brown County Schools with the district’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program. He used to be a classroom assistant at the junior high.

“His eyes and his smile — it showed me his love and joy of what he was doing,” coworker Jenny Kelp said.

“If he was a having a difficult day, he always showed to push on and it will be fine. In the end, everything will be fine.”

Martin enjoyed fishing and hunting deer. He and his father would go hunting and fishing together, his mother said, describing the two as best friends.

Language arts teacher Brad Baughman met Martin when he worked at the junior high. The two would often talk about fishing and Christianity.

“First and foremost, he was a terrific Christian man. He was easygoing. He had a real kind of calm demeanor about him and a great guy to talk with, a good conversationalist,” he said.

Church member Georgina Burker said Ernest Martin Jr. “knew the Bible backwards and forwards. He didn’t have to use notes to teach. He was a born teacher. He loved it. He was well-educated and a great family person.”

Baughman said he admired how Martin juggled being a pastor and working full-time while raising a family. Martin would often talk about how much he loved his little girls.

“He could talk about them all day long and he let everybody know how much he loved them,” coworker Mary Florence said.

Broad influence

Clara Martin said she didn’t realize the impact her son had on his community.

“It makes me, as a mom, so proud because people are coming by. It’s like, ‘You don’t know how he influenced me,’” she said.

Burker said one of Martin’s dreams was to have a youth group at Gnaw Bone Wesleyan Church.

“He never quite got there, but he got there outside of church walls. The kids in the community loved him so much. … He had the biggest youth group ever and didn’t even know it,” she said.

Jazmyn Sanders first met Martin when she was in eighth grade and he worked as a paraprofessional in one of her classrooms. The two bonded over their dry sense of humor.

“He would just make jokes like that in class and nobody would get it, but it would crack me up,” she said.

Martin also was a source of support for her during a difficult time for most teens.

“During junior high, that was one of the roughest times of my life, so just to have somebody who cared about me during that time, it meant the world to me because he cared.”

Even after she moved on to the high school, she’d run into Martin out in the community and he’d still ask her about her life.

“He just made things better,” she said.

When Sanders heard the news, “I just couldn’t stop crying because he had impacted my life so much,” she said.

Kelp said she heard about a lot of emergency vehicles responding to Bear Wallow Road that night and “I just started to pray. Whoever it was, I was just going to pray for them,” she said.

The next morning she learned it was Martin. “I just was befuddled. I couldn’t understand — just actually asking God, ‘Why?’”

Burker said the church, which has about 35 members, is wrapping its arms around the Martin family. They have no plans to hire another pastor right now, and the family is welcome in church housing as long as they wish to stay, she said.

Clara Martin said Linda was doing OK, considering the circumstances.

“Around here, one moment we’ll start talking about him and be happy, and then the next minute we realize he’s not here, we just start boo-hooin’.

“There’s a grieving process. We’ve got to go through it.”

Can you help?

A GoFundMe page has been set up in memory of local pastor Ernest Martin Jr. The money raised will go toward funeral expenses and living expenses for the family.

As of June 28, $2,205 had been raised out of the $25,000 goal.

The page is at gofundme.com/rev-ernest-martin-jr-memorial-fund.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.