Remembering Martin L. Mathews, Founder of Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club

The St. Louis luminary transformed lives with youth sports

Nov 11, 2022 at 2:11 pm
Co-founders Martin L. Mathews and Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine in a photo from the club archives. - COURTESY MATTHEWS-DICKEY BOYS & GIRLS CLUB
Co-founders Martin L. Mathews and Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine in a photo from the club archives.

In the mid-1970s, the residents at 665 South Skinker Boulevard, a posh high rise overlooking Forest Park, made the acquaintance of a newly hired night security man with a warm smile and affable manner.

Many did not know he also had a day job, which at the time, paid him nothing at all. But he was very good at it.

One morning in 1975, the residents picked up their morning edition of the St. Louis Globe Democrat and found a photograph of their security man on the front page. Martin Luther Mathews had been honored with the newspaper’s Humanitarian Award for the work he had done for urban youth as the co-founder of the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ Club. Decades later, “Mr. Mathews” as everyone always called him, would remember fondly that many of the residents later joined him for the newspaper’s celebration at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.

Mathews’ legion of friends will be sharing stories like that one with a celebration of his life on November 17, 2022, at Graham Chapel at Washington University (see below for more information). If the funeral is anything like the events that Mathews conjured across his more than 60 years with the club, it will be filled with hundreds of St. Louisans of every hue and nearly all the ZIP codes. They will hear a joyful noise as Mathews did love his gospel, hymns, soulful sounds and roof-rattling patriotic anthems.

Mathews, co-founder of the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club and for more than 60 years a force for racial harmony in our region, died Tuesday, November 8, 2022, in hospice care at Evelyn House in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He was 97 years old and had remained active and engaged with the club well into his later years.

Mathews started the club in 1960 with Hubert Habib “Dickey” Ballentine after the two met under a shade trade in Handy Park, which served the north city neighborhoods known as the Ville and The Greater Ville. Both had been semi-pro baseball players and had started sharing their skills with boys growing up near their homes. The two figured they could be even better together, and plotted ways they could buy equipment and uniforms and compete with baseball teams from more privileged neighborhoods.

Mathews and Ballentine would have their differences over the years. Ballentine, who died in 2000, was more the firebrand, believing in Black empowerment in the spirit of Malcolm X. Mathews believed in building coalitions with anyone who could help, including with what used to be called The Establishment.

Mathews did not participate in protest demonstrations. He acknowledged candidly that some white donors found that a big plus when he would make his ask.

Many of Mathews ardent supporters were social justice advocates, activists and protesters. Yet they found his moderate approach beyond reproach, as he was overwhelmingly, demonstrably effective and never in it to fatten his wallet.

Mathews and Ballentine both believed education and character development were the paths to success. Mathews said he used baseball, and later football, basketball and swimming as bait, a way of engaging young people in learning teamwork and discipline that could carry over to the classroom, then on to college and careers.

Their teams were wildly successful and turned out dozens of athletes who would earn college scholarships. A couple became All-Americans in college and starred in professional sports, namely all-pro Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Niele Ivey, point guard at Notre Dame, WNBA star and current head coach at her alma mater. More than 30 Mathews-Dickey alumni are in the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

For their work, Mathews and Ballentine were hailed by presidents, Democrat and Republican. In 1982, Ronald Reagan presented the two with the Presidential Citizens Medal at a ceremony at the club. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well as vice presidents Joe Biden and Dan Quayle visited the club and praised its learning centers and leadership and mentoring programs.

Mathews was as non-partisan as a civic leader could possibly be, but when pressed a bit on the subject, he told an interviewer that he had voted for Ronald Reagan … and Barack Obama. So bi-partisan.

St. Louis political officeholders, business leaders and social justice activists, some not on speaking terms with one another, would turn out en masse for the club’s star-studded galas. Mathews counted among his friends and supporters, the brewery moguls August A. Busch Jr. and August A. Busch III.; Charles F. Knight, of Emerson; Al Fleishman, a founder of the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm; and Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. All but Busch III are gone, but Mathews kept on making friends.

Still engaged and recently involved in a variety of ways have been such luminaries as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Ozzie Smith, Tony LaRussa, Ezekiel Elliott, and Joe Buck. Over the years, Mathews attracted corporate support from Ameren, Centene, Coca-Cola Bottling Company and Enterprise Rent-A-Car to name just a few. Mathews persuaded the United Way to provide millions in critical financial support to the club for many years.

Amazing accomplishments, particularly when considering Mathews’ origins. He was born February 17, 1925, in the Missouri Bootheel town of Neelyville, the 11th of 13 children of Ned and Amanda Mathews. Ned was a farmer/laborer who worked from dawn to well into the night to put food on the table for his brood. Amanda read aloud from the Bible and the U.S. Constitution to her children, as well as to friends and neighbors.

Though he grew up in a segregated town, Mathews saw firsthand the viciousness white people could bring, but he remembered kindnesses as well. He noted that he owed his name to a white obstetrician who advised his mother to name her baby Martin Luther. Dr. Robert Lee Turner told Amanda that her baby was going to grow up to be as influential as the man who triggered the Protestant reformation.

He turned out similarly to another Martin Luther, the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was born four years after Mathews.

Mathews adopted King’s words and his spirit, even as he eschewed the marches and the sit-ins. He knew the “I Have A Dream” speech backward and forward and often repeated that our children should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He was given to other mantras that he would share with his youngsters, including his Three Rs – Respect, Restraint and Responsibility.

Ballentine and Mathews drew strong support because they were almost entirely selfless. By the early 1970s, the duo was overseeing no fewer than 75 baseball teams.

Ballentine never took a salary. Mathews would eventually accept a salary as the club’s chief executive, but he had to put together a series of day jobs to support his wife and five daughters.

Mathews rose to a management job in the 1970s with Burkart Manufacturing, a maker of automobile seat cushions. But he lost his position when the company was sold. The company offered him a management position out of town, but Mathews said he couldn’t leave his "kids" behind.

So that’s when he took that night job at the apartment building and kept on cobbling together ways to raise money and support his club.

After several hours of interviews conducted with Mathews for a book about his life, it wasn’t hard to understand how Mathews worked his magic. He never started a conversation with what he wanted from you or what you should or could do. He was interested in you. How were you doing? What were your hopes and dreams? How could he help you get to where you wanted to go? This worked with both the kids and captains of industry.

African American business leaders including David Steward, founder of World Wide Technology, Inc. considered him a mentor. So, too, did Richard Mark, who recently retired as chairman and president of Ameren Illinois; John E. Jacob, former Anheuser-Busch executive and president of the National Urban League; and Eric Bachelor, who operated a chain of Outback Steakhouses and Houlihan’s restaurants in St. Louis.

Bachelor said Mathews had an innate understanding of what it meant to be a black executive in a world largely dominated by white men. “Mr. Mathews operated within this culture. He had a passport. And he was about making sure that successful people of color got to know other people of color so they could help each other.”

About 50 children he once mentored who are now adults were interviewed for the book about his work, called I Trust You With My Life. They told the same story about Mathews. They felt heard. They felt loved and never did they want to let this man down.

Which is not to say they turned into angels.

In the book, Curtis Taylor remembered waking up on a metal bunk bed in a cell with eight or nine other prisoners in Missouri’s Farmington Correctional Center, reflecting on how this had all come to pass. He had been one of Mathews’ young proteges. He was practically a poster child for the club when, as a 14-year-old, he appeared on the Today Show with a few other boys to tout the virtues of Mathews-Dickey. Just over 10 years later, he was serving what would turn out to be three years of a seven-year sentence on charges stemming from forgery and identity theft.

It would have been easy to predict that Taylor would find trouble. Of all the boys who have passed through Mathews-Dickey, he may have had the most difficult childhood, but it could have been much worse without the club that practically raised him.

Taylor remembered when his mom brought him over to the facility on Kingshighway in 1987. He was seven years old and most definitely did not want to be there, but Margaret Taylor was working several jobs at the time, and she needed to be sure someone was watching over Curtis while she was away.

“I was a momma’s boy,” Taylor recalled, “and I remember insisting, ‘You aren’t going to leave me with these people.’”

Mathews overheard the conversation and came over to see what was up. “He brought himself down to my level,” Taylor said. He said, “C’mon, what do you like to do?”

And Mathews listened, and Taylor felt like he was heard.

Soon enough Taylor was playing basketball and participating in the club’s tutoring program. Noting his boundless energy, the staff and tutors gave him more to do, putting him to work organizing the room for each session.

“I was spending 65 percent to 70 percent of my time at the club. The staff was my family,” Taylor recalled.

Taylor pretty much had the run of the place and started tinkering with the office computers after the staff had gone home. One day, staff members found they had been locked out of their computers. Taylor had messed with the passwords.

Rather than punishing Taylor, Mathews put him together with Sonya Henry of Computer Enterprise, the club’s IT vendor. Henry gave Taylor a paying job on weekends, building computers “from the motherboard up.” He also participated in the Mathews-Dickey A Few Good Men leadership program that had youths participating in public service work in their neighborhoods.

All of this was taking place at a time when life at home was very difficult for Taylor. His mother was suffering from a mental illness. At times, she would forget or was unable to pick up Curtis from the club. Mathews would often drive him home.

What Mathews didn’t know for quite a while was that Taylor was living alone in that home. Yes, like in the movie Home Alone, but not so funny. He remembered sleepless nights with the shadows on the wall alternately frightening him and keeping him company.

Eventually, Mathews did learn what was going on with Taylor and helped get him on the right track. But by age 18, he was getting bored with school and began hanging out with a bad crowd.

“There were a few years there when I didn’t return to the club. I was ashamed of what I was doing and didn’t want Mr. Mathews to know,” Taylor said.

By then, Taylor had reunited with his mother, but the two were facing eviction. He needed money fast and “at that point, I didn’t feel like I could turn to anyone.” So Taylor became involved in identity theft.

After his first arrest and conviction, Taylor went straight. He got a job at Burger King and ended up managing three stores, but he fell back into identity theft, violated his probation and landed at the Farmington Correctional Center in 2005. Rock bottom.

“I never could have told Mr. Mathews,” Taylor recalled. “How could I tell him that this smart kid who could say and do all the right things because of his influence would then throw it all into the wind?”

Even so, Taylor summoned the courage to send a letter from Farmington to Mathews through an intermediary at the organization. Mathews let Taylor know that he would always be welcome at the club and to please visit when he got out.

When the day came to see Mathews, Taylor said he could hardly look at him. “I was scared, but Mr. Mathews said that this would not be the end of my story. I was going to do something great.”

Mathews put Taylor in touch with Judge E. Richard Webber, a circuit judge who developed a probation and parole program with Mathews’ help. Webber’s ambition was to make sure that newly released prisoners would find good jobs and a path up and out of the criminal justice system, and it worked for Curtis Taylor. With Webber’s help, Taylor enrolled at Meramec Community College. From there Taylor put together seven solid years building a work record. He returned to Burger King and then went on to other fast-food establishments, where he served as a manager and trainer. When IKEA opened in the fall of 2015, Taylor was put in charge of a staff of nearly 90, serving up those Swedish meatballs.

Curtis Taylor makes no bones about it. Mathews and Mathews-Dickey saved his life. Now he wants to live up to Mathews’ dream for him to“do something great.”

“I understand the role of those positive influences that I had when I was younger,” Taylor said. “It gave me a foundation that I could work with when I turned my life around. With all that happened, I never lost respect for adults or for community service. My dream now is to help kids connect with seniors and to teach them both how to use technology. I want to help them create the relationships that Mr. Mathews and I had.”

Mathews loved recounting Taylor’s story with his friends. On Monday, Taylor was able to visit with Mathews at the hospice, just in time as it turned out. By then it was too late to have a conversation. But his spirit had not left the room. Taylor told Mathews that he loved him and whispered prayers to him. And he was certain Mathews could hear him, because that man always knew how to listen.

Martin L. Mathews will lie in state at the Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club (4245 North Kingshighway Boulevard), on Wednesday, November 16 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. There will be a celebration of life for "Mr. Mathews" on Thursday, November 17, at 10 a.m. in Graham Chapel (Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive). In lieu of flowers, please send memorial contributions to Martin Mathews Legacy Fund.

A portion of this obituary is adapted from a memoir Richard Weiss wrote with Mr. Mathews titled: I Trust You With My Life: The story of Martin Luther Mathews and the many lives he transformed with cofounder Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club.

This story has been updated.

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