This article first appeared in Texas Lifestyle Magazine on September 5, 2019.
“What we believe is there is nothing more precious than a child’s smile,”
says William Lee Martin.
Growing up in Blue Mound, Texas, Martin was a skinny, buck-toothed kid who was painfully afraid of speaking in public and was known to throw up before speech class. That would all change in 1996 when Martin decided to have his first open-mic performance. From that moment on, he never looked back.
In 1999, Martin was the opening act for country legend George Strait at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The performance catapulted him to success. The formerly apprehensive kid from Texas began living out his dreams with regular gigs in Las Vegas and entertaining the troops overseas, but it was his one-hour CMT special, “Cowboy Bill Martin: Let the Laughter Roll,” which brought his face into over 1.7 million homes.
The “Cowboy Bill” nickname came from Martin’s grandfather, a fan of the 1960s wrestler Cowboy Bill Watts. Eventually, Martin dropped the name when he landed his first movie role in the film, “300 Savage.” Today, the witty comedian writes and performs “The Living in the Middle Report,” which is shown on Facebook and has thrown his cowboy hat into the country music arena writing songs like, “I’ll Stand for You” and “400 Horses.”
In addition to his role as proud husband and father of five, Martin, together with his wife Michelle, founded the Cowboys Who Care Foundation which provides kids coping with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, Resistol cowboy hats.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the 2019 Cowboys Who Care Golf Tournament will be held on September 16th in Fort Worth.
When did you realize you were funny?
I was picked on relentlessly at school and at home, however, I made my mother and my brother laugh and that’s where it started. My mother made sure there was laughter in the house. It wasn’t until I watched 1984’s “Bill Cosby: Himself” that I had my aha moment. I know Cosby’s life took an unbelievable turn but it doesn’t change the fact of what that special did for me.
Who encouraged you to become a comedian?
In 1993, I started writing a book called, “Life Under the Neon Moon Now That She is Gone and Took the Dog with Her.” With each finished chapter, my family and friends, whom I pestered to read it, told me that it reads like stand-up. It wasn’t until I lost my job, that I gave it a try. My grandmother said, “Go home, look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Are you happy?’” After staying home in the fetal position for five and a half months, I asked myself that question. I called my grandmother and said, “I am going to be a standup comedian.” She told me to go for it.
Why did you start Cowboys Who Care?
The foundation started with just one meeting. A girl named Ashley Miller, who was 12 years old at the time, had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I was asked to put my name on a golf tournament to raise money for her. I was happy to do so and I got to know her and her parents. Her cancer went into remission but came back with a vengeance until she lost her battle in 2011.
I just Googled, ‘kids with cancer images’ one day and I saw these bright, beautiful faces and bald heads. In the mirror, I could see my cowboy hat and then it hit me, “These kids need cowboy hats!”
What have you learned from your nonprofit?
The most important thing I get out of it is to make sure I don’t take myself so seriously. I take things like love, sharing, family, God, and helping, seriously. It reminds me not to take life, careers, the next move or the next step, and my importance to others, so seriously. It’s a constant reminder that no matter your difficulty, some people are going through far worse.
How did you get the Resistol Hat Company to donate cowboy hats?
I wrote a letter to the president of Resistol because I figured I would start with the biggest company and then work my way down. Less than a day later, Stan Redding replied and invited me to his office in Garland, Texas. He told me his step-son had been in and out of cancer treatments since he was an infant and the warehouse was mine until we got on our feet. Although Redding left the company, their commitment to our foundation has never wavered. The current president has helped us deliver almost 10,000 hats in nine years.