One person can make a difference

Published 7:34 pm Sunday, October 16, 2011

Daily News photo/JOHN EBY Thelda Mathews unwraps her birthday gift, Dowagiac’s 14th piece of public art, Solitude by Tuck Langland, on Sunday afternoon.

Dowagiac’s arts community gathered at Beckwith Park Sunday to surprise Dogwood Fine Arts Festival Visual Arts Committee Chair Thelda Mathews with Tuck Langland’s Solitude as the 14th permanent public sculpture.
It looked a bit like an Occupy Dowagiac march, except her friends held umbrellas instead of protest signs as they sang a belated Oct. 15 “Happy Birthday.”
The achievement, of course, was in keeping a secret about something going on in the Grand Old City from someone with her ear usually close to the ground.
The gray skies cried and Mathews shed a few tears of her own as Langland presented the piece to Mayor Donald Lyons.
“I told you she’d need a hankie,” Langland laughed, pleased by her stunned reaction.
He read the plate honoring her “vision and dedication,” which “brought public art to the community of Dowagiac.”
“I’ve always loved her,” Mathews admired Langland’s gift of Solitude.
Langland made three other pieces — Dance of Creation, Resting Dancer beside City Hall and On with Life outside Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital.
Langland said, “As I travel around the country and talk to people about sculpture — New York, Colorado, Arizona, a lot of places — I keep mentioning Dowagiac and pointing out the numbers — 6,500 people and 14 sculptures.
“How can one person make a difference? She didn’t just put sculpture in the town, she gave the town a new sense of pride. Dowagiac came alive and it started with one woman. Of course, a lot of people helped and have been involved, as well. It’s an odd thing to do, to say, ‘I’m going to get people to donate money to put sculptures around our town.’ Dowagiac did it right. Most towns borrow a sculpture for a year, then take it away. Dowagac buys them and puts them in permanently. These will be here as long as there is a Dowagiac. We’re honoring a person who ought to be knighted —Dame Thelda? — for service to your community above and beyond what anyone would have expected at no gain to herself, just giving. It’s appropriate we give something back.”
Lyons said one of his “guiding truisms” is that “true differences in this world are always made by one person. They don’t come out of committees, but from the dedication, vision and action of one person, which could not be better demonstrated” than by Mrs. Mathews.
“From all of us, thank you very much.”
A key co-conspirator, Karen Judd of the Visual Arts Committee, said, “Let me explain how this all came about. About six months ago I got an e-mail from Janice Langland and she said Tuck would like to give Dowagiac a sculpture to honor Thelda for bringing her vision and dedication to public art to the citizens of Dowagiac. The event was to be a secret. Tuck and Janice made secret trips up here (from Granger, Ind.), looking for places to set this sculpture. Finally, with the help of Mayor Don Lyons and City Manager Kevin Anderson, we found this perfect site.”
Judd initially believed the date would be no problem because of her Oct. 15 birthday.
“They were going to Texas” for a national community college convention, but “then I heard the (Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees, which her husband, Dr. Fred Mathews chairs), voted not to go.”
When the conspiracy widened to include Fred, “He said, ‘It’s a good thing you called me. I was going home today to make reservations to go to Washington state to see Scott and his family.’ Oh, dear. Thelda, you have no idea how we got involved in your life. Needless to say, you’re not in Washington and Scott’s here,” as was their other son, Dr. David Mathews, SMC president.
“She’s lived with me for 58 years. She’ll never believe a word I say after I lied so much these past few weeks,” Fred interjected.
Judd continued, “We had to wait for you to be out of town to take the bush out so you wouldn’t notice that. We had to dig the hole to place the base. We snuck into town when we knew you were gone. John Vylonis and the city crew dug the hole, set the base and covered it all up again. You didn’t know that, and that was several weeks ago. Then we came to Friday and we knew we had to set the stone, which was blasted out of a hill in southern Indiana. It’s very natural, which we thought was perfect. We had to do it at 9 in the morning when Thelda goes to exercise and drink coffee until 10. You didn’t notice, but I ran down here in between to check on things. Tuck was here doing drilling. Just an hour ago Solitude was set in place.”
“Her vision for Dowagiac became a reality in May 1995” with the dedication of Langland’s Dance of Creation in Farr Park.
Two years later followed Richard Hunt’s Active Hybrid in Rudy Park near the Mill Pond.
“Sixteen years later we have an amazing collection of public art,” Judd said. “All of our pieces have been created by nationally-known artists. It was Thelda who contacted all the artists, worked with the donors and city officials and handled all of the intricate details involved with one of these events. Thelda has been the Visual Arts Committee leader and teacher — and a fine teacher she has been. We now have bus tours coming to Dowagiac to see our public art. Thelda Mathews is responsible for instilling an appreciation and understanding of the visual arts in our community. We, as citizens, have approached a new level of pride and have accomplished what most communities our size dream about in our dedication to the fine arts. I can think of no one more deserving to receive this honor.”