Connections overseas: Matthews and Ortega’s friendship spans 50 years


This story had its beginnings nearly 50 years ago, but it couldn’t have been reported a half-century back.

It required not only the creation of the Internet, but also apps such as the one which can translate a message written in a foreign language into English (or vice versa) within a matter of seconds.

Earlier this year, the Mahomet Daily profiled Gary Matthews, and his wife Trudy, as part of a series entitled, “Heroes from Home.”

The story was read by 3,894.

One of those readers was Pedro de Benito Ortega, a retired Spanish Navy Vice Admiral.

He lives in Spain, where he read an online translation of the original story.

Ortega then responded, in his native language, but Mahomet Daily Staff members could read and understand his correspondence — not because of a knowledge of the Spanish language — but thanks to the availability of a website which translated Ortega’s words into English.

“We have read ‘Heroes from Home’ in the Mahomet Daily, which may seem unusual because we live in Spain, a country far away, small for American standards, and perhaps very difficult to locate from Illinois,” Ortega wrote. “But we cannot remain silent. We have known the Matthews’ for a long time and we believe that every praise is well-deserved.”

Through a subsequent series of emails, Ortega explained how he met Matthews in 1969 and how the friendship was formed.

“The beautiful story began when U.S. Navy gave us all the information necessary to replicate five of its frigates Knox class, and highlighted a group of technicians to Ferrol-based shipyard, to help to the Spanish Navy and shipyard construction,” Ortega wrote. “The joint work of the two navies was exemplary and successful construction I think surprised some on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Gary, head of the group, laid the foundation for collaboration. Contrary to the approach taken by some of renting single-family homes, as is usual, it was decided (by Matthews) to rent an apartment … and live like Spaniards.

“(Matthews) invited all staff of the Spanish Armada involved in the project to an ‘Open House,’ a practice not then known in Spain … all of which reveals the willingness of Matthews to win friends.”

According to Ortega, that invitation laid the foundation for what would follow.

“In our case, it was the beginning of a mutual sympathy, invitations from both sides, many things in common between Trudy and my wife, little trips with both families with children and of course affable, constructive and almost daily work-related treatment. A solid friendship that his return to the U.S. did not break,” Ortega wrote.

“That was the beginning of a friendship that grew with our tour of duty as Assistant Naval attaché to the Spanish Embassy in Washington as we both worked in Crystal City (the National Center 3, ninth floor), in separate projects. As the collaboration between our two respective navies grew, so did our friendship. I have to confess my pride when I hear some of our frigates, fully operational, are giving support and protection to a carrier in a Task Force, sailing in the Mediterranean. Or the Red Sea, for example.

“It is a fortune for Mahomet to count citizens of this quality.”

The families spent the better part of a decade together in D.C., although only a portion of that time was in the original plans.

“Pedro’s original assignment to the Spanish Naval Attaché’s Office in Washington was for a normal four-year tour, but he ended up being extended for three more years for humanitarian reasons,” Gary Matthews said.

“Pedro and Maria Luisa have four daughters and one son. The Spanish love and dote on all of their children, but sons have a special importance because they are the ones who carry on the family name, so the family was devastated when Julian, their only son, developed leukemia toward the end of their initial tour in D.C.”

Julian was treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

“Because his condition required extended treatment and followup, both navies agreed to extend Pedro’s tour, which ended up adding three years to their stay,” Gary Matthews said. “Throughout their time in the U.S., all of their children attended U.S. public schools and naturally became fluent in English.

“They also picked up many of our customs. Their oldest daughter, also named Maria Luisa, ended up marrying the son of a Spanish diplomat whose father was stationed in Washington at the time.

“They ultimately married in the USA, became citizens, and live in California.”

That story takes a fascinating twist.

“An interesting footnote is the fact that the oldest son from that marriage, David, ended up graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and is still on active duty with our Navy,” Gary Matthews said. “When Pedro and Maria Luisa came to Annapolis for David’s graduation, Pedro wore his Spanish Admiral’s uniform. President Obama, who was the speaker at the graduation ceremony, apparently spotted the uniform and made a point of meeting and chatting with them following the ceremony.”

Ortega was impressed by Matthews’ work ethic.

“Gary did not change, true to the standard that had confessed long ago, reaching his office three hours before the official time; thereby obtaining obvious advantages,” Ortega wrote. “First, avoid traffic problems (empty roads) and second, to have three additional hours invaluable to study and decide solutions to everyday problems, calmly and without consultations, telephone calls and meetings hinder both.”

There is also good news to report on Julian Ortega.

“I still have a picture in my mind of Julian in his bed in Bethesda with all of his hair gone and swollen face from the harsh treatments of that day,” Gary Matthews said. “He truly looked like he was near death.

“However, God and the doctors at Bethesda pulled him through, and his leukemia was in remission when they returned to Spain. The happy news is that Julian has since married and now has children of his own, which is kind of a miracle in itself.

“He now works for a major bank in Switzerland and when he came to New York on a business trip a few years back, he took the time to track down the doctor who treated him at Bethesda to thank him personally for his treatment.”

The 84-year-old Ortega wrote about how decisions from the past affected outcomes of the future.

“When the time came, inexplicably, Gary was not promoted to Admiral,” Ortega wrote in his email. “Clearly the U.S. Navy lost a great admiral; although what happened later (through MAYC, in Mahomet), many children have seen straighten up their life. Who can say what is most important? Everything has its reason for being, especially if you are a believer.”

One of the staples for the annual MAYC fundraising auction (the 2018 one will be held on June 1 at Schroeder Farms, in rural Bellflower) are foreign trips sponsored by the Matthews, often to Spain.

“He took advantage of trips to Spain to renew contact with old friends while unveiling a Spain that no tourist agency is capable of transmitting,” Ortega wrote.

“Everything I believe sheds light on the personality and the ability and inclination to make solid friends, Trudy and Gary.”

Gary Matthews’ reaction, when seeing Ortega’s words, were typically humble.

“How much should I pay you for this propaganda, Pedro?” he answered in his light-hearted response.

The Matthews are offering another trip at the upcoming MAYC auction and say it may be the final one they sponsor. Whether they accompany the recipients is to be determined as Trudy Matthews is battling health issues.

Gary Matthews said he and his wife “hope to return to Galicia and Fonteclara in September, but it’s a little tentative at this time.”

The Matthews feel thankful and blessed for their decades-long friendship with the Spaniards.

“We have enjoyed many adventures together and shared many laughs, as well as serious discussions over the years,” Gary Matthews said. “Trudy and I both feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to enjoy the friendship for many years, despite different nationalities, cultures, languages and geographic separations.

“(Pedro) and Maria Luisa Serials are always very special friends who hold a special place in our hearts.”

Thanks to modern technology, their heartwarming story can be shared in multiple countries.


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