Martha Layne Hall was born December 7, 1936, in Bagdad, Kentucky, the only child of Everett and Mary (Taylor) Hall. When Martha was in the sixth grade, her family moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky, and opened the Hall-Taylor Funeral Home. Martha was involved in numerous extracurricular activities both in school and at the local Baptist church. Her parents were active in local politics, working for the campaigns of several Democratic candidates, and Hall frequently joined them, stuffing envelopes and delivering pamphlets door-to-door.
Martha attended Shelbyville High School where she was a good student and a cheerleader. She frequently competed in beauty pageants and won the title of Shelby County Tobacco Festival Queen in 1954. After high school, Hall enrolled at Lindenwood College, then an all-woman college in Saint Charles, Missouri (It is now a co-ed university). After one year at Lindenwood, she transferred to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. She was active in many clubs, including the Chi Omega social sorority, the Baptist Student Union, and the home economics club, and was also the president of her dormitory and vice president of the house presidents council.
In 1957, Hall met Billy Louis Collins while attending a Baptist camp in Shelby County. He was a student at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky, about 13 miles from Lexington; he and Hall dated while finishing their degrees. Hall earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics in 1959. Having won the title of Kentucky Derby Festival Queen earlier that year, she briefly considered a career in modeling. Instead, she and Collins married shortly after her graduation. While Billy Collins pursued a degree in dentistry at the University of Louisville, Martha taught at Seneca and Fairdale high schools, both located in Louisville. While living in Louisville, the couple had two children, Steve and Marla.
In 1966, the Collinses moved to Versailles, Kentucky, where Martha taught at Woodford County Junior High School. The couple became active in several civic organizations, including the Jaycees and Jayceettes and the Young Democratic Couples Club. Through the club, they worked on behalf of Henry Ward's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1967.