A stalwart is defined as someone physically and morally strong, as well as one who steadfastly supports an organization or cause. That’s also how two close friends described American Legion Past National Commander Joe Matthews, who passed away last week.
Matthews, who died July 19 at age 97, led The American Legion in 1972 and 1973. Fellow Past National Commander Clarence Bacon, who had been friends with Matthews since 1954 and delivered remarks at Matthews’ funeral, said his friend has earned a prominent place in the organization’s history.
“I think that Joe will go down as one of The American Legion’s stalwarts,” Bacon said. “He held some very strong positions for The American Legion. He was a great ambassador and a great salesman. And he could recite stories of The American Legion and go into the details that Mark Twain used to describe his journeys up and down the Mississippi. He had a passion for The American Legion.”
And he had a passion for helping people, added Past National Commander Jake Comer. “He helped me in so many ways. Any time I had a question, before I became national commander or while I was serving, I knew I could turn to him for advice. He could go over things so well and was so easy to talk to, whether you were a 20-year-old or someone his own age. He was able to be a friend to anyone.
“He was a stalwart, and they don’t come any better than that.”
Matthews, who joined the Navy in 1932, left in 1936 and then rejoined as a Seabee during World War II, serving 28 months. He joined the Legion in 1945 and was elected national commander 27 years later. Matthews met six presidents during his life and had lunch with one, Harry Truman.
During his tenure as national commander, Matthews was asked by President Richard Nixon to make official visits to Poland and Russia, making Matthews the first head of a veterans service organization to travel behind the Iron Curtain. In an interview with The American Legion Magazine before he passed away, Matthews said, “Never was I disgracefully received by any (Russian hosts), except one guy who’d had too much to drink. He started popping off about the United States. The next thing you know, he had to go to the bathroom, and then he forgot his way back.”
“I thought that Joe represented The American Legion well, as well as the entire country, when he went to Russia,” Bacon said. “He was the right man for that.”
Bacon said Matthews would serve as a mentor to any Legionnaire in need of one. PNC William Detweiler, who first met Matthews in 1968, agreed.
“(Matthews was) always available to answer any question or offer his support,” Detweiler said. “He was friend, a mentor and gentleman. Much of his advice was in the form of suggestions, so in a sense, you were led to believe that you came up with the solution to a problem. When in fact, Joe had solved the problem, but he made you feel that you had come up with the answer.
“I do not think I ever heard him raise his voice. When he spoke on an issue, it was obvious that he had given a lot of thought to the issue before he spoke.”
Past National Commander and Past National Adjutant Robert W. Spanogle – who served as the Legion’s assistant membership director during Matthews’ year as national commander – shared a similar opinion.
“He was a mentor to many of us – we, the members of my generation, then young Vietnam veterans who were just joining the Legion,” Spanogle said. “There was no generation gap with Joe. He knew many of the founders of the Legion; they were his friends. Joe would tell us of their struggles to establish the Veterans Administration and to have Congress enact the 1944 GI Bill. He made these World War I founders human beings. He always had a warm, sometimes funny personal story about each of them.”
But Matthews could also relate to the younger veteran. Past National Commander John H. Geiger said Matthews was instrumental in getting a younger generation involved in the Legion.
“Joe did a very good job of helping some of the Vietnam veterans transition into the Legion,” Geiger said. “It was difficult for those guys, but Joe was there to make them feel welcome and feel like they belonged.”
The consensus among his friends was that Matthews held that attitude toward everyone he knew.
“Joe Matthews never met a stranger,” Spanogle said. “You could approach Joe Matthews, talk with him, ask him questions, and you felt like you had known him all your life.”
Bacon offered similar sentiments.
“I knew Joe as a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He was a man dedicated to his family,” Bacon said. “He loved The American Legion, and he loved all the people in The American Legion. And I never, ever heard Joe say anything bad about a single person. Joe was just that kind of person.”
To read The American Legion Magazine’s complete interview with PNC Joe Matthews, click here.