In 1898 at the U.S. Military Academy, a young captain named John J. Pershing swore in an even younger new recruit, Pvt. Martin Maher. Maher, who had arrived in his new country just two years before from Ireland's County Tipperary, was as new to West Point then as each year's new cadets, or "plebes." After over three decades encountering plebes and upperclassmen, Maher would earn a place in the hearts of countless graduates and, through his memoirs, a place in the memory of countless filmgoers.
Soon after his enlistment, Maher was assigned to the West Point gymnasium. He claimed he couldn't swim a stroke, but as the Department of Physical Training's swimming instructor from 1899 to 1928, he made sure that each and every cadet could.
"It has been argued that Marty Maher knew personally more officers in the United States Army than any other person alive," the U.S.M.A. Public Affairs Office says. From Pershing to Patton, Bradley to Bolivar, Maher knew them all — and he learned more than just their names. The scrappy young Irishman knew them well, and loved them. His work ethic, enthusiasm, and affection for the corps of cadets inspired many to love him, too — he was named an honorary member of the classes of 1912, 1926 and 1928.
As Maher progressed through the ranks to technical sergeant (E-7), he essentially grew up along with many young officers; as he matured, he nurtured them. The novelization of his life was aptly titled "Bringing Up the Brass." One of Maher's former swimming students, Dwight D. Eisenhower, wrote the foreword: "I cannot put too high an estimate on the help [Maher] gave my morale. Marty, with his Irish wit and his talent for understanding, did the same for many, many others ... This foreword is meant to be a testament of the admiration and affection one soldier feels for an old friend, associate and helper, Sgt. Marty Maher of West Point."
Maher's impressions and memories of West Point in the book were so vivid that director John Ford made them into what is still called the best movie about the U.S. Military Academy — "The Long Gray Line. Starring Tyrone Power as Maher and Maureen O'Hara as his wife, Mary, the film provides a warm and humorous noncommissioned officer's perspective on our nation's oldest officer training institute.
After his 1928 military retirement, Maher took a civil service position in the gymnasium until he retired to New City, N.Y., in 1946. Even then, he would take the train to Highland Falls almost daily for meals and conversation at what is now the Park Restaurant: "It 'tis, you might say, my APO," Maher quipped. He died on Jan. 17, 1961, at the age of 84 and is buried in the West Point cemetery.