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SMC president pays tribute to his father, who founded the college

DOWAGIAC, Mich. -

Dr. Fred Mathews was a lifelong community servant who gave Cass County Southwestern Michigan College and so much more before passing away Sunday.

“Education really was his route out of poverty,” said Dr. David Mathews, president of Southwestern Michigan College and Fred Mathews’ son. “And I think that’s why he believed in it so much as a way to help people.”

Fred Mathews grew up very poor in northern Michigan.

He dropped out of high school to get into the army so he could use the GI Bill to get an education.

He became an optometrist and found his way to Dowagiac in the 1950s.

“He was in practice, I think it was 63 years, by the time he retired,” said David, in his only TV interview since his father’s passing.

David has been president of Southwestern Michigan College since 2001.

It’s the same college his father founded in 1964.

“It wasn’t so much the drumbeat of education, it was more the drumbeat of always doing what needed to be done,” said David.

He said that’s what motivated his father.

Fred not only founded Cass County’s first community college while being a full-time eye doctor in downtown Dowagiac, he also helped form the Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce, he helped open the first local bank in town, and he led the city’s Downtown Development Authority for 10 years, which helped revitalize the area his business was in.

“He would not let anyone tell him that something was impossible,” said David.

When a consultant told Fred a community college wouldn’t survive in Cass County, he fired him and hired someone who thought it would.

David was with his father at the groundbreaking for the school decades ago.

His dad was then elected to the first board of trustees.

“And then his fellow trustees voted him chairman, and continued to do that every two years for 50 years,” said David.

David said his dad’s decision to retire in 2015 was ‘agonizing.’

But right up until the end, Fred kept watch of the college that not only bares a street and library in his name, but is where two of his grandchildren graduated from, with a third following behind.

“I think two weeks ago he came out to the student activity center to have lunch just to see the activity,” said David. “And that was the whole reason for existence.”

David described his dad as ‘fiercely independent’ up until he became sick with pneumonia a couple of weeks ago.

He also said he has inherited a workaholic mentality from his father, and he plans to honor his dad by continuing to work on the growing college, which is currently 2,500 students strong.

Fred Mathews’ life will be celebrated on Wednesday, March 22 at 10:30 a.m. at Calvary Bible Church in Dowagiac. He will then be buried at Riverside Cemetery.

According to the college’s Facebook page, “Memorial contributions in Fred’s honor may be made to the Dr. Fred and Thelda Endowment Fund at Southwestern Michigan College.”  

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