When you walk away from a visit with Martin Mathews, you will probably have a smile on your face. Every time we’ve met, I’ve walked away feeling inspired, amazed and encouraged.
Fifty-two years ago, as little league baseball coaches, Martin and the late Hubert 'Dickey' Ballentine started the Mathews-Dickey Boys' Club (now known as the Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club). As the story goes, they formed a partnership under a shade tree in Handy Park. They had no resources, no money and few connections, but they did have a common goal: to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. They went to work on the baseball and football fields of St. Louis and did whatever they had to do help the kids on their teams become better people.
At 87, Martin Mathews is still at work, still helping shape lives. I remember the first time I met him. It was 1994, when I was a reporter for KMOX Radio. I had just spent the night on the streets of North St. Louis, doing a 'ride-along' with city police for a story I was working on. I saw a lot of bad things up close that night: a gang-related drive-by shooting, drug deals going down and a double murder scene right in the middle of a street. I came away thinking that there wasn’t much hope left in the world. My boss, the late John Angelides, had arranged the ride-along with the cops, but he also set me up to meet with Mr. Matthews the next day. Following that meeting and seeing the good work Mr. Mathews was doing with kids, it renewed my faith that good would ultimately prevail.
When I went to see him recently, I found him in his office doing what he does best: working the phones, beating the bushes to find more 'teammates.' He gave me one of his big smiles when he recognized me--it was very good to see him again. He showed me all around the club, telling me about the latest upgrades. Athletics still is the primary tool for reaching kids and that takes a lot of resources--fields, facilities, coaches and equipment. Mr. Mathews has no trouble asking for help, and he has always gone right to the top. He could always pick up the phone and call Chuck Knight, August Busch, John Danforth, Jack Taylor or any of the other major players in St. Louis. He got them all to help. He even twisted the arm of President Ronald Regan to secure federal funds to build the James 'Cool Papa' Bell Stadium.
Mr. Mathews speaks a bit more deliberately and thoughtfully these days, but he still has a smile in his voice. He talks about how he believes his destiny and mission in life started the day he came into this world--when he was named by the doctor who delivered him.
“When I was born, (the doctor) said to my mom and dad, I’m going to name him Martin Luther, 'cause one day, he's gonna grow up to be a great man.” Turns out Old Doc Turner was right. Young Martin grew up during the Depression--one of 13 kids--the son of a handyman and farmer who somehow managed to sustain a family off of 40 acres near Poplar Bluff amid the cotton fields of the Missouri Bootheel. He still owns his daddy’s land and says he keeps it to remember his roots. “It’s a good reminder that if you work hard in America and do the right thing, you can succeed--that’s what America is all about.” He describes how he lives his life with the Bible and the Constitution as his guides. He teaches kids to succeed by using something he calls the '3 Rs'--respect, restraint and responsibility. "We get kids working to live by that; and if they do and you are consistent, then you can become a member of the 'CIA'--credibility, integrity and accountability," he explains. "That’s what we drill into the kids.”
When I ask him if he has any regrets in his long life, he answers, “That’s a tough one. You know what? With all the opportunities I’ve had, I can think of no regrets," he says. "I’ve been able to accomplish all the things in my life, even though there were difficult circumstances.” He pauses for a minute and continues, “Sometimes I feel like David in the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
In 1982, when President Reagan came to St. Louis to dedicate the club’s new facility, he declared it “a model for the country,” and gave Martin Mathews the Presidential Citizens Medal. I’ve got a feeling that when the president left the club that day, he, too, had a smile on his face.