On Friday I attended a memorial service for Don Matthews, one of the great people I've been fortunate to meet in my life.
Don was a giant in the field of Political Science and I had the pleasure of learning from him and teaching for him at the tail-end of his stellar career, which lasted half a century.
Matthews was a prolific scholar and published the classic book U.S. Senators and Their World, in1960. Lyndon Johnson called it "a landmark study of the US Senate" and upon publication the jacket contained a blurb from then-Senator John Kennedy. U.S. Senators explored how the Senate functioned and detailed the cultural norms, or "folkways," that helped the institution work. The book was masterfully written and retains its explanatory power even today, nearly 50 years after its first publication. It was such an approachable book that for a time (I've been told) you could buy a paperback copy in drugstores. Don went on to publish several other books and help build the department at the University of North Carolina into a national powerhouse.
Our paths would cross because of a decision he made to chair the Political Science Department at the University of Washington. In the 60s and 70s, the department was a divisive and hostile place as were many political science departments during the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The notion that "the personal is political" energized many, but for others represented an affront to the scholarly notion of detached analysis and observation.
In Seattle at the time, activist professors in the department were known to lead protesting students to picket the houses of conservative faculty colleagues, and a local newspaper had a reporter routinely cover faculty meetings hoping to report on the internal strife which sometimes resulted in chairs being hurled across the room. In 1974, when I was a mere seven year-old, Don took the helm of the department, restored civility and professionalism, and over the years guided it as it rose to national prominence. In one of his first acts, Don assured the local newspaper reporter that he could stop attending faculty meetings since they were soon going to be "boring."
He retired in 1996, four years after I joined the department. Toward the end of his life he donated more than $800,000 to creat an endowment for the department he rescued, funding a faculty chair (one fo the few nationally to be funded by an academic) and graduate student fellowships. He quipped at the time that he was surprised to be donating so much money to a university that had so consistently underpaid him.
He was a great man and I feel lucky to have crossed his path and learned from him. What I learned, ultimately, had very little to do with academe or the field of political science, and this is what I shared with his family in a letter I've posted below.
To the Matthews Family:
I was saddened to learn of Don’s passing and regretful that I’d fallen out of touch with a man who had such a positive impact on my life.
I was a Political Science doctoral student at the UW from 1992-98, but was also “one that got away”: After finishing my PhD, the attraction of Seattle, a marriage to a woman I loved, and a fascination with the burgeoning Internet eclipsed my desire to become an academic. Since 2000 I’ve been in the private sector, most recently—an interesting twist given my training at the UW—leading a market research company.
That choice led me to fall out of touch with Don and many others who were such an important part of my development as a thinking human, but I will always be indebted to the people who animate Gowen Hall.
I had the honor of learning about the Senate from Dr. Matthews (which is odd to write since he wanted to be called “Don”) and had the pleasure of being his teaching assistant for an upper division course in Congressional politics. He knew the field—hell, he’d help invent it—but the memory I want to share here is more personal and has had a lasting impact on me.
Don took an interest in me. He wasn’t on my doctoral committee—he was winding down those commitments when I met him—and while I studied American Politics and we would commiserate about the change in tenor that the mid-90s brought to the political scene, he seemed simply interested in me as a person.
In 1995, I fit the grad student stereotype to a T: broke and living on loans, uncertain about the future, argumentative and opinionated, engaged to another grad student, feeling generally oppressed by circumstance and my perception of constricted opportunity.
One day, while sitting in his office reviewing test scores or some such Don asked simply: “What are you doing next weekend?” I could have replied “reading a bunch of dense books, getting drunk with fellow grad students, worrying about paying bills, questioning why the hell I’m here” but I’m pretty sure I said “nothing.”
And so the following weekend Dia (then my fiancé, now my wife) and I trundled up to Orcas for a weekend with Don at the cabin. The clouds cleared. Here I was casually hanging out with an eminent scholar in the most relaxed setting imaginable. And hierarchy and the academic game were just shoved to the side.
It was a wonderful, important weekend for us. We escaped the pressure cooker that was our grad school day to day existence and had a chance to spend time with Don who signaled to us the beauty of aging. I’ve never really had grandparents and thus had never really known people living the last half of their life. And what we observed was wonderful, comforting, and inspiring.
We drove around the island visiting his friends and I’ll never forget the visit we made to a couple who lived on the island half the year, tending their garden and chickens. Dia and I soaked it up and suddenly saw possibilities we didn’t know existed. We could see ourselves 30+ years in the future tending our garden and minding chickens on an island. It was as if Don had taken a knife and cut through a cloudy veil that had obscured our sense of what we could make of our life.
Back at the cabin, we made dinner, broiling salmon and cooking vegetables we’d purchased that afternoon, drinking wine and hearing stories: stories about academe, about the department around which our lives then revolved, and about life. He spoke affectionately of his family, a planned vacation, travels, and we talked and laughed until it was past all of our bedtimes.
And at some point that evening the real fun began has Don began asking us about music, quickly established that we didn’t know a damn thing about jazz. He proceeded to dig through a stack of vinyl albums and provide us with a personal tutorial. When we returned home, I rushed out to the record store and bought “Ella in Berlin” and to this day I think about that weekend with Don whenever I hear “Mack the Knife.”
It’s hard to convey how important and memorable this simple weekend was to us both. We escaped Seattle and were taken under the wing by someone we respected who had seen much more of the world than either of us and seemed to enjoy our youthful company.
Don gave us a gift that I’ve come to understand as one of the most important things anyone can give another human being: The gift of kindness.
Donald Matthews was a formidable and important scholar who’s left an imprint on the field of Political Science at large and a legacy at the University of Washington.
But long after I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned about politics, I know that I’ll remember Don and that memory will be of him, on the couch in a cabin in the woods, glass of wine in hand, smiling and gently bobbing his head while Ella sang.