Fifty years ago, Henry Mathews was a senior at Everett High School. And what a senior year it was.
He was a starting forward on a state tournament basketball team. He was president of the student body. He excelled in the classroom. And he enjoyed having friends over to his parents’ home on Broadway in north Everett.
Henry Mathews was also black. And it says something about the community and the school back then, not to mention about Mathews himself, to point out how little that mattered.
In an era of racial unrest elsewhere in the country — within a few years, tensions would boil over with deadly inner-city riots in places like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Detroit and Newark, N.J. — Mathews was an otherwise ordinary Everett teenager.
Except he was far less ordinary than most.
Because at Everett High School in 1962, Mathews stood out for more than his skin color. Given his many achievements, “he was the man on campus, that’s for sure,” said former basketball teammate and close friend Ron Larsen.
Mathews, who died of cancer last month at age 67, would lose touch with most of his high school friends over the years. But even after five decades, those same friends recall a young man of uncommon dignity, character and good will. A person who made the school better, and somehow seemed to make each one of them better, too.
Said Lee Woodard, a classmate and chairman of the school’s 50th reunion committee, “I don’t think he ever realized what a mark he made.”
Henry Mathews and Ron Larsen first met as schoolboy football players. Mathews, a receiver from Hawthorne Elementary School, went streaking past Larsen, a defensive back who went to Washington Elementary, to catch a long pass for a touchdown.
That playground moment — a triumph for Mathews, a humiliation for Larsen — somehow led to a friendship that continued through their years at North Junior High School and later at Everett High School.
“He and I were best buddies,” said Larsen, who lives today near Ferndale. “I stayed over at his place many, many times. And every day we could, we played basketball. We were always going around the city looking for somebody to play.
“The two of us were single-minded about sports. When we were growing up, he didn’t date and I didn’t date. … When other guys were (spending time with girls), we were out shooting hoops.”
Mathews played football as a younger boy and baseball for his first two years in high school, but by then it was clear his best sport was basketball. He was a three-year varsity player under longtime Seagulls coach Norm Lowery, and the team went to state all three years. A starting forward as a senior, Mathews helped Everett win its first 19 games; the team finished 22-3 after losing back-to-back games at state to Garfield and South Kitsap.
“Henry was a great athlete,” said Dick Weeks, the team’s other starting forward. “A superstar. His picture was in the paper every week.”
Although Mathews was good enough to deserve a swelled head, he was as humble as he was gifted. For that much he could probably thank his parents, James and Alma Mathews, who wanted the best for their son and expected the best from him. They had moved their family to Everett from Beaumont, Texas, when Henry, the youngest of three boys, was 2. James Mathews became a chef at the then-prestigious Everett Elks Club and Alma was a homemaker.
“His mom and dad were very strong Christians, from what I heard,” said Larry Evans, a classmate and baseball teammate of Mathews. “His dad was so gracious, and his mom was always warm and hospitable.”
“His parents were the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” Weeks said. “His dad had a smile as big as the world.”
Toy Chambers, Henry Mathews’ daughter, remembers visiting her grandparents in Everett as a girl, “and when we walked down the street people would honk and wave at us,” she said. “Everyplace we went, someone knew (James Mathews) and we’d have to stop and talk to them. He knew all those people and all those people loved him.”
It would be foolish to suggest that race was irrelevant in Everett 50 years ago. After all, James Mathews worked at the Elks Club, but was prohibited from joining. He later worked at Everett Golf and Country Club, and probably wasn’t invited to join there, either.
But for Henry Mathews, the school years passed almost without incident. Despite being just one of three blacks in a student body of well over 2,000, no one remembers him ever being taunted or ridiculed for his color, either in school or by a sports opponent.
And had it happened, “it wouldn’t have been tolerated by any of us,” said Weeks, who lives today in Prescott, Ariz.
“My father never said anything negative about growing up (in Everett),” Chambers said. “Not once… Because of the times, there were probably negative things that happened. But he just said that he had a lot of fun, and that everyone liked him and he liked everyone.”
After high school Mathews went to the University of Washington, where he earned a degree and lettered two years on the Husky basketball team. He later spent two years in the Army and then returned to the Seattle area where he married, raised a family of three children — Toy, son Jason and daughter Maygon — and built a successful contracting business.
About 10 years ago, and by then divorced, Mathews moved to Marysville and began looking for ways to spend his retirement years. Never one to fritter his time, he became an ordained minister, taught English to people wanting to learn the language and gave lessons in CPR.
But perhaps his most meaningful work came at the Marysville Care Center, where he worked as a part-time caregiver with elderly residents. “He did that because he felt like they were people who didn’t have anybody,” Chambers said. “So he’d read to them and talk to them. He made sure they were well taken care of and that they were respected.”
At 67, Mathews still had much to live for, not the least being six grandchildren whom he adored. But he was diagnosed with cancer on Jan. 27 and died on Feb. 14.
Yet in those final days, and bolstered by a strong Christian faith, he faced his inevitable death with the same ebullient spirit that distinguished his life.
“There were a couple of days where he was really weak and tired, but he was still the jokester,” said Maygon Mathews, who lives in Kent. “He was still smiling like everything was OK. He was still giving us hugs. He never showed that he was afraid.”
Nearly a month after Mathews was buried at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, the initial grief has begun to ease for those who knew him. Former classmates chuckle as they remember funny stories about a boy who had the knack for making people laugh. They still marvel at his abilities in sports and in school, and they leave no doubt he was a role model to many.
“Henry was a great guy,” Larsen said. “Along with my parents and some basketball coaches along the way, he sure helped shaped my life.”
“I never heard a bad thing said about him,” said Evans, who lives today in Gig Harbor. “He was so easy to get along with. So human, so kind.”
For his family, the memories of this remarkable man are more recent, personal and certainly more profound.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Maygon Mathews said. “He was real friendly, real enthusiastic, and he was always laughing or saying something funny. He really was an amazing father.”
“I’m humbled by how great he was,” said Chambers, who lives in Covington. “He always treated people with kindness and so many people admired him because of that. He was a great friend and a great example.
“About two months ago, right before he passed, he said to me, ‘When people come into your life, your job is to give them whatever they need. To have them get something out of being in your life at that moment.’ And he lived his life the same way from beginning to end.”