Kamiak grad accomplished much in his short life

With his passion for debate, credit as co-author of a scholarly new book and a freshly minted doctoral degree, it only makes sense that Matt Grindy could anticipate the brightest future.

That would and should be true — if only life made sense. Inexplicably, Grindy won’t see the future he richly deserved.

At 27, Matthew Allen Grindy died Feb. 12 in Tallahassee, Fla., where he was director of debate at Florida State University. In 2006, he’d been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that affects bone, soft tissue and the nervous system.

The Kamiak High School graduate lost his cancer fight, but not before accomplishing more than most people ever hope to achieve.

“He had a drive all his own. He always enjoyed learning. And no matter what, he kept going,” said Scott Grindy, Matt’s father, who works as facilities and security director for the Port of Everett.

“He was very dedicated to his students, and the university’s debate program,” said John Mayo, dean of the College of Communication at Florida State. “He’d go that extra mile, not just as a coach, but as a friend and mentor. He had such a great future.”

With his future uncertain, Grindy packed all he could into the time he had. He did the nearly impossible by becoming a published author while still a doctoral candidate. “What we usually see, someone will do a Ph.D., and if they’re really hardworking they’ll create a book in the future,” Mayo said. “He had his book out before he finished his dissertation.”

“Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press,” by Davis W. Houck and Matthew A. Grindy, was published early this year by University Press of Mississippi. It explores how media coverage of the 1955 murder of a black 14-year-old in the town of Money, Miss., shaped public opinion at the dawn of the civil rights movement. The teen was said to have whistled at a young white woman in a store before he was beaten, maimed, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.

When the Florida State graduation ceremony was held in Tallahassee last month, Matt Grindy wasn’t there. His widow was. Amber Bell met her future husband when they were undergraduates at Western Washington University in Bellingham. After earning his degree in political science in 2002, he went on to the University of Miami to serve as debate coach and earn a master’s degree before beginning doctoral studies at Florida State.

On April 25 at the Tallahassee Civic Center, Bell said the university president had her stand as he told the graduates about Grindy’s private commencement ceremony. No less authentic than the one that drew thousands, the Feb. 8 ceremony was held in Grindy’s room at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.

“It was unprecedented,” said Mayo, who was at the hospital in full academic regalia with Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell and Provost Harry Abele. With Grindy in bed wearing his cap and gown, the men conferred upon him his doctorate in speech communication. The event was complete with the ceremonial hooding, to signify a doctor of philosophy.

“We had a graduation cake, balloons and champagne,” said Bell.

A health policy analyst who still lives in Tallahassee, Bell said her husband expected to earn the degree posthumously. “He didn’t expect this at all,” she said.

Even as his illness worsened, she said, he was taking research trips to the Mississippi delta, where locals still talk of the history he learned in college.

At Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, where Grindy was on the debate team, his legacy lives on in a scholarship administered through the United Way of Snohomish County. Called the Matt Grindy Foundation, the scholarship has its first $500 recipient this year, Jack Moores. A senior, Moores will attend Western Washington University and plans to pursue debate, said Steven Helman, a history teacher and Kamiak’s debate coach.

Helman remembers Grindy as a standout student devoted to debate. “We go to 20 tournaments from October to March, and he went to every single one of our tournaments,” Helman said. Grindy’s debate partner was Marko Liias, now a member of the state House of Representatives from Mukilteo.

Back then, Helman said, the team earned travel money by wrapping Christmas gifts at the Everett Mall.

“He was tall, gregarious, very outgoing,” Helman said of Matt Grindy. “In debate, some people do a minimum amount. In every one of his performances, he tried to be the very best.”

When Grindy learned he had a serious illness, his wife said he wasn’t interested in traveling around the world or fulfilling some other exotic dream.

Instead, said Bell, her husband told her he wanted to live his life with his wife, work on his book and degree, and coach his debate team. She remembers his words:

“I’m already doing what I want. I’m just going to do it will all my heart.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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