- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

NUTLEY, N.J. (AP) — Back home, she is still Martha Kostyra a fresh-faced blonde with a Betty Crocker perm, the only girl in advanced math, the one who dreamed of a modeling career and played Saturday night ping-pong matches at Terry Verdi’s house.

Above all, she’s still innocent.

In Martha Stewart’s hometown, people wince over her painful fall from grace, holding fast to the Martha they knew and to the notion that she was targeted for who she was, not what she did.

“It’s a travesty, what’s happening,” said Mike Geltrude, 64, a classmate from Nutley High School’s Class of ‘59. “She was a good person, and I still believe she’s a good person.”

Many agree in this upper-middle-class bedroom community of 27,300, sitting 12 miles west of New York City. And the few who think that she did do something wrong say a prison sentence would be too harsh for Mrs. Stewart’s conviction for lying about a stock sale.

“She got singled out,” said Claudio Carchia, 46, owner of C&M; Beauty Supplies. “I don’t think she should do jail time. This goes on every day.”

The lifestyle guru was 3 when parents Edward and Martha Kostyra moved their six children to Nutley from nearby Jersey City. He was a pharmaceuticals salesman, she a teacher.

In their modest three-story home at 86 Elm Place, young Martha learned about good things. By 4, her father was teaching her gardening. She got baking and sewing lessons from her mother.

A straight-A student, she belonged to almost every club there was at Nutley High School. And although she wasn’t voted most likely to succeed Barbara Viventi and Parke Richards were chosen she was treasurer of her senior class.

The tall, pretty girl shows up on almost every other page of the 1959 yearbook, including in a candid shot of the advanced mathematics class where she was the only girl among 25 students.

Her senior portrait was captioned with the quote: “I do what I please, and I do it with ease.” But Mr. Geltrude said the phrase was written by yearbook editors, not Martha.

Mrs. Verdi, an administrative secretary at Nutley High for 48 years, remembers when Mrs. Stewart and other friends of her son gathered in her attic recreation room.

She guards Mrs. Stewart’s image almost as closely as she guards the school’s lone remaining copy of the leather-bound 1959 yearbook. It’s kept in a safe in the front office.

Martha Kostyra, a criminal? Mrs. Verdi doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t know anything about her corporation, but I know there’s top people in our society who’ve lied and gotten away with it,” said Mrs. Verdi, a great-grandmother in her 70s.

In the school cafeteria hangs a framed copy of the Feb. 20, 1959, Maroon and Gray school newspaper, with a front-page story headlined “Photogenic Senior Makes T.V. Spots a Pleasure.” It describes the budding modeling career of Martha Kost ” better known within the halls of N.H.S. as Martha Kostyra ” and her plans to work her way through college.

She returned to Nutley often.

She was one of 10 distinguished alumni who participated in a 1985 “Salute to Greatness,” speaking to students about her career. She returned for class reunions in 1969 and 1999, mixing casually with old friends and posing for photographs with anyone who asked.

At the reunion in 1999, she pulled organizer Mr. Geltrude aside and told him that she would pay the bar tab for the evening but not to make a fuss about it.

In September, Mrs. Stewart took her place among the inaugural inductees to the Nutley Hall of Fame, an honor also bestowed on 19th-century sharpshooter Annie Oakley, another former Nutley resident.

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