By FRED KRONER
This is one of a continuing series the Mahomet Daily will publish about the ordinary men and women from the community who have done or accomplished extraordinary things in their lifetime. We encourage readers to submit nominations for other deserving individuals who deserve consideration. We are delighted to tell the stories of these persons who have contributed so much, often without the recognition they were due.
Gary and Trudy Matthews grew up in the same Ohio community (Chagrin Falls) east of Cleveland that is where comedian Tim Conway attended high school.
With 200 students in high school, and 40 in Gary’s graduating class (the year after Conway finished), there were few strangers among the students.
Gary and Trudy were acquainted, but didn’t date.
By the time Gary Matthews returned, after graduating from the Naval Academy, he had lost track of many peers.
“I had leave before I reported for my first duty station,” Matthews said. “I wasn’t sure who was dating who. A friend gave me a list of unattached females.”
In a community the size of Chagrin Falls, there aren’t a lot of secrets.
“Everyone knew everyone,” Matthews said.
He checked the list and — nodding at Trudy — said, “she was the first one I called.”
On March 1, Gary and Trudy Matthews will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
It was a whirlwind romance between a couple who are the same age, but were a year apart in school.
“We had our first date in July (1957), were engaged in November and married in March,” Trudy said.
She remembers getting reacquainted with the young man she knew from high school.
“I’d just finished reading a book about (President Dwight) Eisenhower,” Trudy said. “He (Gary) bedazzled me with his uniform. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, here he comes.’”
Gary and Trudy Matthews had arrived at Chagrin Falls High School in different manners.
Gary was an Ohio native. He was raised in the area. Trudy was born in Austria and lived in that country for 16 years.
“I had taken English,” Trudy said, “but couldn’t hold a conversation (when she arrived in the U.S. in 1950 as a teenager). I understood it more than I could speak it.”
She was allowed to immigrate and claim U.S. citizenship because her mother was a U.S. citizen, having been born in Cleveland.
Her family had spent nearly two decades in Austria after “my father inherited property,” Trudy said.
After 30 years in the Navy, Gary Matthews retired in 1988.
He wasn’t ready to leave behind the workplace.
“I was looking for a job outside of the Washington Beltway, as far away as I could get,” he said. “I had a friend (Jack Grigg) who was an electrical engineer. He worked with me on a special project.
“He was consulting out here with the Clinton Power Plant.”
There was an opening in an area where Matthews had expertise. His friend provided a recommendation.
“I helped set up the Reliability Center for the non-nuclear part of the (Clinton) plant,” Gary Matthews said. “I was hired to set up a Navy-type monitoring system.”
Trudy Matthews remembers the promise as the family relocated to the prairie lands of Central Illinois, settling in Mahomet and purchasing the house and acreage they saw on a Saturday two days later.
“We moved with the idea of staying four to five years,” she said, “and then we’d be gone.
“It’s now 30 years we’ve been in our house.”
The time estimate was accurate in one sense. After five years commuting to Clinton, Gary Matthews retired for a second time, in 1993.
“I decided I didn’t have to work,” he said.
And yet, he still wasn’t ready to sit by idly and twiddle his thumbs.
He accepted a position as a school bus driver for the Mahomet-Seymour school district.
“Lee Jessup was taking me to a training course in Rantoul and we were chatting about kids in Mahomet,” Matthews said. “I’d been driving a month or so by then and it struck me that so many kids go home on the loose with nothing to do after school and are problems waiting to be created.”
Jessup acknowledged that there was a need for an after-school program, especially for those who would have no parental influence as they arrived home.
“They were the forgotten kids,” Gary Matthews said. “If the parents were working and they didn’t have anything to do after school, they were prone to fall under the influence of older teens.”
Change didn’t happen overnight, but the course was plotted within months.
“With the help of the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club (in Champaign), we did a community survey and established there was a need,” Gary Matthews said. “John Alumbaugh was the superintendent at the time, and he and Lee were very enthusiastic about starting something at the elementary age group.
“That’s where you can make the most influence. If you get them early, you have a much better shot. The idea was to get them through high school and thinking about becoming productive citizens.”
In 1994, in partnership with the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, a satellite affiliate made its debut in Mahomet.
It is what has grown and evolved into the thriving Mahomet Area Youth Club.
MAYC recognized the contributions of both Gary and Trudy Matthews last fall when it named the clubhouse at their building (on West Main St.) in honor and recognition of the couple.
“They have been amazing,” MAYC executive director Chad Hoffman said. “I can’t put into words how much they’ve meant. Whatever I’d say would understate it.
“Without them, there wouldn’t be a club.”
Long-time board member Chris Forman said Hoffman’s sentiments are not an exaggeration.
“Even though it did limp along for a while, without their time, sweat, money and tears, it wouldn’t have survived,” Forman said.
“Even as the Board changed over the years, Gary has been that one constant. That’s a big draw for a lot of givers. Gary has such a huge heart and they know it’s in good hands.”
The influence and impact of Gary and Trudy Matthews has been exemplary.
“From the inception to today, they’ve had their hands in it,” Hoffman said. “They are amazing people and when they wanted to see something done, they would take the lead and make it happen.
“They are the kind of people you need in a community to keep it growing and moving forward. It was clear and obvious who the clubhouse should be named after.”
Before the Matthews’ transitioned to a more reduced role, they had the vision to help create an endowment fund.
“It’s striking to me how tireless of a worker he is,” Forman said. “He can dream big and she kept him in check, kept him grounded.
“He is a real workhorse and they are truly a dynamic duo. It has been an honor to serve with them.”
An annual MAYC auction has served as a chief fundraiser. The Matthews family donated what traditionally generates some of the greatest revenue: foreign travel packages with them serving as the hosts.
“A lot of people don’t do a lot of traveling, but when they do, it’s with a tour,” Gary Matthews said. “You don’t get immersed in the culture that way.”
During his time in the Navy, one assignment was in Spain for four years. They enjoyed it at the time, and now when they can return.
“We have a favorite place we take people in Spain,” Gary Matthews said. “We see a side of the country ordinarily no tour would take you on.
“It broadens our horizons and makes life more interesting. We like to see people more than scenery.”
Gary and Trudy started donating the tours in 2005. Though many of them have been to Spain, some have been to Germany, Hungary or Italy.
“The very first trip was $1,500 for two people,” Gary Matthews recalled, “and three couples bought it.
“One year, we made $58,000 for the club (through the tours).”
Gary and Trudy Matthews had three children. One son is deceased.
Their decades-long commitment to youth in Mahomet has occurred even though no family member ever directly benefited.
They have no biological grandchildren, although Trudy Matthews said, “We have our grandchildren at the club. We’ve gotten so much back.
“We got invited to a college graduation for a girl we knew at 10. You hear so many stories. Grandmothers have told us if not for the club, their grandchild wouldn’t have made it. Even if you didn’t think so at the time, you made a difference. But you don’t turn them all around.”
In 2004, a facility which now serves more than 1,000 Mahomet youth and their families yearly was in danger of closing.
It wasn’t going to happen on the Matthews’ watch.
“We had a lot of community support (especially from the Rotary and the Lions Club) that enabled us to become independent,” Gary Matthews said. “The school gave us a bus. We were able to purchase the building (on Franklin Street). Trudy and I put down the down payment and (Senator) Rick Winkel helped us get a grant to pay off the mortgage.”
It was never a certainty that their efforts would be successful.
“We had our ups and downs, went in debt a few times, but we survived,” Gary Matthews said. “We hung on by our fingernails so many times. The partnership with the school enabled us to have an enrichment program that benefits all the kids.”
While Gary Matthews served in the Navy, the family called a number of places home.
Among their stopping points were Monterey, Cal., Baltimore, Newport, R.I., Florida, Boston, Spain, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Charleston, S.C.
“We’re lucky they landed in Mahomet,” Forman said.
As for the future, the Matthews have committed to hosting one more tour when the next MAYC Auction is held on May 1. Beyond that, they are uncertain.
“We’ll be involved,” Gary Matthews said, “but at 83 (years old), you don’t make long-term commitments. You take one day at a time.”
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