A 100-year-old vet helps the VA hospital hum

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A 100-year-old man at the VA hospital isn't news. A 100-year-old man volunteering and wearing out the people who try to keep up with him at the VA -- that's news.

I heard about Clarence Matthews from Sharon Beattie. She met him when she escorted her parents, Malcolm and Mary Trimble, to the VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland to give out valentines and candy last month. In no time, Mr. Matthews was flirting with her 92-year-old mother.

"The word 'charming' doesn't begin to describe him,'' Ms. Beattie said. "We met him for just a short time and I will never forget him.''

So I went out to the hospital where Mr. Matthews has volunteered since he was just 83. He came as advertised.

Dapper in a light blue suit jacket, lively tie and gray slacks, he was already at work a little after 9 a.m. when I arrived, loading his book cart with donated paperbacks and magazines. He chucked the ones he deemed too old to be worthy of a veteran.

It had been a snowy Wednesday morning, but he said he'd driven from his Monroeville home himself. When I complimented his tie, he smiled and asked, "What about the face above it?"

That was a rare moment of immodesty. The chore I'd have all morning was trying to get him to say anything about himself. He spoke often and eloquently, but insisted on shifting the focus to all the other good people working at the hospital.

"Personally, I don't need the publicity,'' he said. "Let's highlight the veterans here.''

He had something of a set speech, one I'd hear him give again later to a hospital nurse. He spoke of how we say goodbye to young, healthy men who are taught to kill and sent off to foreign lands, only to say hello to them again when they are sick and aged. I wish I had recorded it.

His route took us all over the hospital, starting on the 10th floor and working our way down. He neither wanted nor needed help with doors, and he left his cane behind as often as not as he dropped magazines and paperbacks on waiting room tables or walked into rooms asking, "Would you like anything to read?''

Workers beamed when they saw him. He seemed to know almost every nurse, doctor, librarian, janitor, orderly and secretary, a number of whom told me they look forward to his Wednesday tours.

"He's part of the structure here,'' recreation assistant Marlena Regus said. "He keeps us together.''

If his "bless your heart'' had any effect at all, he must have put at least two cardiologists out of work on our two-hour walk. "Hi, sweetie. Hi, sweetheart. I came to see you, sweetheart'' -- it was like that up and down the halls.

Mr. Matthews said he was born on Galveston Island, Texas, a few miles into the Gulf of Mexico, but he had an uncle in Pittsburgh. So after graduating high school at 16, he came north and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. He studied electrical engineering but there weren't many openings for black engineers in the bad old days, so he opened a repair shop on Centre Avenue and ran that for decades.

His "World War II Veteran'' is there for his time as a U.S. Navy technician, he said, working on the B-25s at Hickam Field in Honolulu. They damaged his inner ear, but not his resolve.

Most people politely declined his books and magazines but they seem to appreciate the gesture and his old-school mannters.

"How do you do, sir,'' he'd say as he walked in a room. "How are you feeling today? Where you from?"

He passed hundreds of sitting and supine people, but didn't sit down himself for two hours. Dr. Layka Amaranatha said he tells his 50-year-old patients to watch Mr. Matthews walking and contributing and enjoying life. "He is a hero,'' Dr. Amaranatha said.

Mr. Matthews' 101st birthday is April 27, and when a woman asked what he planned to do this year, he deadpanned, "Go out with you.''

He was kidding. He's been married to Jane since 1957. She tells me she's "a good bit'' younger, but she expects they'll last.

How happy he'll be about this column is another question, as there may be too much about him.

"I'm concerned about giving a boost here for the VA,'' he told me more than once.

So I'll leave you with what Mr. Matthews would say to families when he left their rooms:

"Take care of each other.''


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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