Veterans who joined Jim Mathis for a potluck barbecue in his lovely backyard garden Saturday couldn’t have known they were seeing their friend for the last time.
Susan Hansberry, Mathis’ wife, called Wednesday with sad news. “We lost Jim this morning,” she said.
A month ago today, I met Mathis and his wife in the stunning garden at their Marysville home. The Marine Corps veteran, who served two tours in Vietnam, said that creating the oasis — graced with pathways, a bounty of blooms, and places to rest — helped him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Herald readers met him in a front-page article published Aug. 27.
Mathis, 72, died at home early Wednesday. He suffered from prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones.
“It was due to Agent Orange,” his wife said Thursday. Prostate cancer and diabetes, which Mathis also had, are among diseases recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as being associated with exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the Vietnam War.
On Saturday, the couple hosted veterans Mathis had met through a weekly support group at the Everett Vet Center. The barbecue wasn’t the first time they had opened their garden to Mathis’ fellow Vietnam vets.
“He was in very good spirits,” said Darrington’s Richard Cardiel, 69, who is part of the group. Cardiel was in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. “We help each other out,” he said.
Mathis served with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. A 1962 Everett High School graduate, he first went to Vietnam in 1965 and went back in ’67. Their garden includes mementos of his 37-year civilian career as a lineman. Old boots planted with flowers, helmets and tools are reminders of his work with Seattle City Light and other electric utilities.
“He was without a doubt my best friend in the service,” said Tom Boyle, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Boyle, 73, served in Mathis’ company during his 1965 Vietnam tour. “Jim was his own man,” he said. Boyle was amazed to learn his friend became a gardener. “That just blew my mind, but it did him good. It put him at ease,” he said.
Cardiel, too, was astonished by the garden. “The first time I saw it, I thought ‘I’m not telling my wife.’ Next thing you know, she has me buying plants,” he said.
Mathis was the instigator of a veterans reunion. About 15 years ago, Boyle was on the phone with his Marine buddy. “He said, ‘Why don’t you get together a reunion with the guys?’ I thought about it, and started looking up guys,” Boyle said. “After 42 years, we got together in Silverthorne, Colorado, about 25 of us.”
The group has since been getting together every two years. “It’s a great experience,” Boyle said. “And it’s all his fault we got together.”
Mathis said in August that his PTSD became apparent through anger and alcoholism. He stopped drinking a decade ago.
In 2010, he suffered an excruciating loss. One of his two sons, National Guard Staff Sgt. Mark Mathis, took his life after serving in Afghanistan. “When his son passed, that lit a light in Jim’s mind,” Boyle said. “He was helping people before that. He got more involved after that. He has a lot of friends out there, through his work with the vets.”
Along with his wife, Mathis is survived by his son, Reed Mathis, daughter Jamie Mathis, stepdaughter Emily Hudon, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and extended family.
Hansberry is grateful for the care her husband received. People from Hospice of the Northwest in Mount Vernon “are angels that walk on the earth,” she said. Stairlifts, a bathroom equipped for disabilities, and an electric wheelchair were provided by VA Puget Sound. “We were just blessed with help,” she said.
Those of us watching “The Vietnam War,” the sweeping and heart-rending Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on PBS this week, are seeing what Mathis and tens of thousands of other veterans endured.
Hansberry said her future husband signed on for a second tour in Vietnam after “watching new recruits, with their shiny boots and new clothes.”
“He was so worried about them being with people who weren’t experienced, and wouldn’t know what to do,” Hansberry said. ”He was one of those vibrant personalities, and a leader. He was a Marine.”
Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Jim Mathis’ life at 1 p.m. Oct. 8 in the back yard of Susan Hansberry’s Marysville home.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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