By Austin M. Smith, Communications Intern
“Hold on a minute,” he says as he gets up from the table, just seconds after I asked my first question. Even at 94 years old, Frank Matthews still moves pretty quickly. He makes his way around the kitchen and returns with a stack of letters, each sporting the finest of penmanship. Frank Matthews is not going to tell me his story, he’s going to show it to me.
A generous benefactor of the John Paul II Newman Center, Matthews is no stranger to the clubs that have been fostering growth in faith and community for more than a century. In 1945, when Matthews was spending more than 40 hours per week learning to speak Chinese at the University of California-Berkeley, the nearby Newman Club helped him feel at home despite being quite far from his hometown of Omaha.
“Let’s see what I say here,” he continues as he sits back down at the table. He tells me about trying to find an apartment in San Francisco, and one of the pastors from the Newman Club, who helped him and his wife Helen connect with a woman who offered them a place to stay for $55 per month.
“The apartment wasn’t far from there, and we’d go to Sunday mass,” he said. “After mass they’d have coffee and rolls. We got pretty well acquainted with it, and enjoyed it very much.”
Matthews was present for the groundbreaking on the site of the John Paul II Newman Center. Expected to be completed in the fall of 2016, the center will cater to students at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. While about 40 percent of UNO’s 15,000 students are Catholic, Matthews and others hope that the center will attract more students to the university, and Matthews thinks it will become quite popular.
A short stay in California ended when Matthews and 30 others were sent to China. World War II ended just before the troops left, but the boat was sent to India, where it helped evacuate troops back to the United States.
His time in California was over, but the impact of the Newman Club would last for decades to come. He recalls how great a help it was to him when he was getting accustomed to California, and believes it can do the same for students coming to UNO.
A busy man, Matthews only has five minutes before another appointment.
“Let me show you something,” he says as he stands up from the table once again. I follow him into another room. Boxes and three-ring binders filled with letters that Frank and Helen sent to each other.
“I’m putting all these letters in chronological order so that my children and grandchildren can see what life was like during the war,” he says.
Matthews has been working on this project for nearly five years. He began organizing the letters shortly after Helen’s passing and is just now working on letters from 1945, the final year of the war.
“As you noticed, I can’t hear you very well,” Matthews says as I’m flipping through one of the books. “Here’s a letter in which I say something about it. In there I say I’ve been on the range all day supervising the firing of tank guns, and my ears are ringing like New Year’s Eve.”
Each letter and envelope is in a plastic sleeve, and most even have a little tab at the bottom to identify what the letter is about. The one I’m reading says “ears ringing” on it, with the previous page reading “hearing.”
Matthews ends the tour of his home and his story with a trip to his study. He’s quick to point out his father’s commission to Secretary of the Navy. Next to that are photos of the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri and Franklin Roosevelt driving down a street in Omaha. Both photos feature Francis P. Matthews, Sr.
If you’re looking to find something in common between Frank and his father, you shouldn’t have to look any farther than their inspiring stories.
Matthews’ appreciation of Newman Centers across the United States came full circle when he had the opportunity to the support the John Paul II Newman Center.
More than 70 years ago, a Newman Center gave Frank Matthews a chance to grow in faith and a place to call home. Now, he plays a role in giving those same opportunities to a number of fortunate University of Nebraska-Omaha students.