Dowagiac Chamber honors Fred Mathews with lifetime achievement award

Published 10:05 am Monday, October 26, 2015

Leader photo/TED YOAKUM Fred Mathews speaks at the Dowagiac Chamber's dinner meeting.

Leader photo/TED YOAKUM
Fred Mathews speaks at the Dowagiac Chamber’s dinner meeting.

Of all the traits he possessed, perhaps none served Fred Mathews more strongly in his formative years than his persistence and tenacity.

Back when he was studying pre-optometry at Central Michigan University, the high school dropout’s received a C+ in one of his courses, bringing his grade average just below the level that was absolutely necessary at that time to get into optometry school.

His professor changed the grade to a B- after Mathews followed him from the classroom to his office, pleading his case.

“Just to get rid of me, I think, he changed the grade,” Mathews said.

After being accepted into the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Mathews received a telegram that stated classes were all filled up, and that he couldn’t attend that year.

The college registrar later found a spot for him, after Mathews drove all the way to Tennessee and spent three days sitting at the top step of admissions office, asking her if someone had dropped out and if a spot was available.

“She said, ‘I’ve been with this college for many, many years, and I’ve never run into anyone as persistent as you are,’” Mathews recalled.

Shortly after graduating in 1951, Mathews went about trying to open his own practice — and, following a tip from his brother living Three Rivers, set out to purchase the office of Dr. Robert Weller located in a humble Cass County city of Dowagiac.

“[Dowagiac] was the busiest, nicest little town I ever seen in my life, and I really wanted to come here,” Mathews said.

Standing in his way was the $5,500 he needed to raise to be able to purchase the practice, a loan for which he was refused by the lender Mathews sought for the money.

That same lender changed his mind after Mathews employed yet another round of his now trademark persistent negotiation.

Be it through helping to create and lead Southwestern Michigan College to leading the rehabilitation of the downtown business district, Mathews demonstrated those same two traits on countless occasions as worked to improve the city he has called home for over 60 years.

The Greater Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce recognized Mathews for his innumerable contributions to the community during their newly revived annual dinner meeting Wednesday evening at the Dowagiac Elks Lodge. President Kim MacGregor presented the retired optometrist and former SMC chairman with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The chamber also announced they are adopting a bench at Beckwith Park in his honor.

After the opening of his practice in 1952, it didn’t take long for the doctor to begin contributing to the people of Dowagiac. In the mid-1950s, he helped to found the Greater Dowagiac Association, which helped bring the struggling Dowagiac economy back to its feet following the closure of Kaiser-Frazer in 1955. Mathews served as the third president of the organization in 1957; the GDA would later become the Greater Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce.

Mathews would go on to help found Community State Bank in 1961 and the Dowagiac chapter of the Lions Club in 1953.

In 1988, he was appointed to head up the newly formed Downtown Developmental Authority, and spent the a decade leading efforts to transform it from one of the state’s worst to one of the state’s most admired central business districts.

But the venture he dedicated most of his time and effort toward was Southwestern Michigan College, which he helped found in 1964. He served as the chair of the college’s board of trustees for over 50 years, becoming the longest serving community college board member in the country.

“This is a great honor,” Mathews said about his award. “I have received many, many regional, state and national awards, but I assure you that none will be cherished by me more than this one.”