Longtime community leader Matthews dies at 88

Dick Matthews enjoying an afternoon on Lake George. Photo provided.Dick Matthews enjoying an afternoon on Lake George. Photo provided.
Dick Matthews enjoying an afternoon on Lake George. Photo provided.

Dick Matthews enjoying an afternoon on Lake George. Photo provided.

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

YORK, Pa. — Family and community were always the top priority for Richard “Dick” Matthews, a longtime Niskayuna resident who died late last month at the age of 88.

He and his wife, Polly, raised their children at the corner of Dean Street and Niskayuna Drive. Their home was in a tree-lined neighborhood with a huge corner lot where their sons, Robert and Donald, and their daughter, Emily, would disrupt the paper boy’s route by engaging him in neighborhood baseball games.

A Niskayuna Central School District Board of Education member for three decades, he handed each of them their high school diplomas: first Don in 1976, then Rob in 1978, and finally Emily in 1982.

Dick Matthews with some of his grandchildren during a birthday party. Photo provided.

Dick Matthews with some of his grandchildren during a birthday party. Photo provided.

On Nov. 25, two days before Thanksgiving, he died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, at Emily’s house in York, Pa.

Matthews, who grew up in Illinois, became interested in community leadership at a young age. He was an Eagle Scout and president of the student body at his high school. His parents hosted a speaker forum at their home, and his grandparents founded the local Baptist church in their living room.

Matthews’ younger son, Rob, who lives and works in London, said that tendency continued into retirement.

“He always ended up being the president of everything, not because he asked, but because people knew he would treat everybody fairly,” Rob Matthews said.

Richard Matthews was active in the Rotary Club, was a trustee of the Union Presbyterian Church, led Boy Scout Troop 37 for a time, and held leadership positions in Lake George, too.

Rob Matthews said every time his father joined a group, they knew what was next.

“Two years later, we’d talk to my mother and she’d say, ‘Well, now he’s president,’ ” he said, “because he was such an honest guy, I’ve always thought that it was interesting to watch others around him. He brought out the best qualities in other people.”

Richard Matthews moved to Chicago while serving in the Navy during World War II, but turned to his passion — education — soon after the war. With help from the GI Bill, he graduated in 1951 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT.

Education brought him to the Schenectady area, too; he participated in a co-op program between MIT and GE. Soon after, he met Polly and decided to stay, eventually joining Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory as a nuclear engineer. While there, he received his Ph.D. from MIT. He worked at KAPL until 2001, when he retired as senior engineer of advanced projects.

Dick Matthews, bottom left, with all his children in October 2014. Beside him is his daughter, Emily, behind him are his sons, Rob, left, and Don, right. Photo provided.

Dick Matthews, bottom left, with all his children in October 2014. Beside him is his daughter, Emily, behind him are his sons, Rob, left, and Don, right. Photo provided.

Despite his career success in the blossoming field of nuclear engineering, Matthews’ children all agreed his proudest accomplishments were raising his family and helping to steward the local school district during his tenure on the school board.

“He loved it,” Emily said. “He really got to know the history. For an engineer, he was a very social person; he really liked people and cared about people.”

On the school board from 1976 to 2006, Richard Matthews was known for being fiscally conservative, a position he held to firmly even when it cost him an election in 1983. He voted to close Van Antwerp Middle School, an unpopular position — but the very next year, he was re-elected after campaigning for a smaller budget.

Don Matthews said his father was always deeply principled.

“He felt the fiscal responsibility to the community to not go overboard, to find the line between excellence and overtaxing the community to have all the possible bells and whistles,” Don Matthews said.

The varied interests of his children, combined with his innate fairness, led Matthews to care deliberately for students with different interests. Rob played volleyball, but Don and Emily were into music. They still play the instruments they learned in high school today: Don the string bass and Emily the flute.

“He was a champion for the creative kids in the community, who were interested in theater, music, the arts, studio art and that kind of thing,” Don Matthews said.

Though his connection to the education system was, formally, limited to the board, Emily said her dad was a professional at teaching life lessons.

Once, she became fixated on the idea that wanted to learn to sail. After reading books and studying up on the technique, her dad took her to his favorite summer getaway: Lake George.

“I ended up with the boat upside down and the mast got stuck on the bottom of the lake,” she recalled with a laugh. “You can learn best by doing, and he was never afraid to let us try.”

Not long after his wife died in 2011, Matthews moved to the Glen Eddy senior residence for six months, then to an apartment in Vermont to be near his son Don. But rather than having him live alone, the family decided he would live instead with Emily in York.

“We came to the realization he probably needed a little more chaos in his life,” she said. “He really rallied and was happy to be around all of the events that were happening in the family.”

So it was with them that he lived out his last days.

To honor Matthews’ memory, his family is working to establish a scholarship in his name. Contributions can be made to Niskayuna Friends of Music, c/o Niskayuna High School Music Department, 1626 Balltown Road, Niskayuna, NY 12309.

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.