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Honoring his parents

Giving News

Mark Matthews

By Angela Curtis

When Mark Matthews created an Endowed Presidential Scholarship, he had an ideal recipient in mind: his father.

The scholarship honors Matthews’ late parents, who encouraged his education despite humble circumstances. Matthews’ father was the first in his farming family to graduate high school. He even made it to college but didn’t finish because of work demands while raising a family. Matthews geared scholarship qualifications toward students who were working their way through school. He wanted someone like his dad to be able to qualify.

He also wanted to honor another important influence in his life — his mother, who as a public school teacher joined his father in stressing the importance of an education.

Matthews’ father’s belief in education stemmed from an upbringing in which the sons quit school at 15 and went to work raising cattle and hogs and growing cotton. J.M. Matthews thought there was a better way.

” ‘If you don’t get an education you’re going to end up digging ditches,’ he’d tell us all the time,” Matthews recalls. Matthews’ father wanted his sons to have opportunities that he didn’t have. The J.M. and Florence Matthews Endowed Presidential Scholarship is Mark Matthews’ tribute to his parents, who died within 10 months of each other in 2003.

“After I grieved for a while, I had to do something,” he says. A scholarship at his alma mater seemed appropriate because education was so important to his parents. Along the way, establishing the scholarship helped his healing process. “It gave me a sense of satisfaction that I was doing something for them,” he says. “I can never pay them back, but here’s something in perpetuity in their honor.”

Matthews has also included the University in his will. The bequest will provide further support for the scholarship in his parents’ names.

The Fort Worth native grew up there and in Midland. His mother was a third-grade teacher and his father worked in accounting for Gulf Oil. They were poor when they first married, but they worked hard and saved so their two sons could get an education. Mark earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from UT in 1972 and later a master’s from Berkeley; his brother, Mike, earned a bachelor’s degree from North Texas and a graduate degree from UT. Mark is now retired; Mike is an administrator at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth.

Matthews might never have become an engineer if not for an ill-fated party. He was enrolled in Plan II and was living with three other freshmen when his roommates threw a wild bash without him. The roommates were expelled, and Matthews was reassigned to a room with three seniors, one of them a major in mechanical engineering. The two got to talking about the different types of engineering.

“He said he liked mechanical engineering because it allows you to know a little bit about everything but not a hell of a lot about anything,” Matthews recalls with a smile. “He got me all excited about engineering, and I switched.”

After graduating, Matthews went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission and its later incarnation, the Department of Energy. For three years he worked in nuclear-energy development, then spent the next 25 years in nuclear-waste management. He worked cleaning up uranium mill tailings sites in the West, often battling communities that didn’t want waste sites as neighbors. The work wasn’t for everyone, but it suited him.

“I like challenges,” he says. “I’d go and stand up in front of a room of people who were hostile and try to change their attitudes. I just got a rush from that. I knew they weren’t going to like what I had to say, but I tried to use logic to change their minds.”

These days he meets with a friendlier audience. Every year he gets the chance to meet recipients of his parents’ scholarship at a recognition dinner on the UT campus. “I’ve met them, and they’re very smart people who are really applying themselves. They weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, which is how the scholarship was designed to be,” he says. “They had struggles, they overcame them, and they went to UT. They seem very grateful and very happy. I’m gratified with the response.”

Matthews takes the opportunity to tell students about his parents and encourage them to give back when they can. He believes everyone can be a philanthropist regardless of circumstances.

“I think that I’m an example of that,” he says. “I grew up in a very simple household, and by coming to The University of Texas, working hard, and applying myself — and the blessings that I’ve had — I’ve been a success in my professional career.

“You feel better giving than you do getting. Giving stays with you a long time.”

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