• The Passing of a Great Musician—and Man

    • Posted on Dec 28, 2008


    Charles Matheson, 86, died from complications of a stroke December 18.  He retired in 1982 after 27 years on the UNI music faculty.  He was my voice teacher and mentor from 1961-5 and friend and colleague until his passing. 

    He was a lion of a man, with a mane of hair that never left, though at 96 it was as white and billowy as a snowdrift.  When I first met him, his hair made as much an impression as his outspoken ways.  Back then it was black with a center streak of peppery-white.  Any man would have paid serious money for such a swept-back wave, and it became his natural trademark.

    His outsized personality quickly made more of an impression.  He dominated a crowded room, and fascinated his reticent midwestern musicians.  “Mama Mia!”  He often exclaimed before expounding an opinion. Outspoken, vocal, downright annoying at times, he could infuriate as often as illuminate.  Still, he remained one of the most beloved music professors at UNI.           

    For thousands of UNI students, not to mention church choirs, community chorales, private students, and concertgoers, Matheson taught and created music as the quintessential means of human expression.

    He made music, lived it, breathed it, took solace from it, loved it to the depths of his being.  Few of us ever care for anything so deeply and so passionately, and I always admired his unabashed enthusiasm for well-made music.          

    I remember one particular rehearsal when he revealed the emotional power of music.  His senior choir was attempting to sing a difficult 8-part Russian vocal cantata.   It involved complex harmonies, a soaring soprano line hanging over bass, tenor, and altos each split into two sections.  It was potentially a transcendent musical experience.

    Matheson urged us along for an hour, and then—Mama Mia! —We finally did it.  For the first time, in a burst of energy, all of us sang right and true.  

    The room echoed with our effort.  Our demanding conductor paused, and looked up at us with gratitude.  Then he quietly began weeping.

    We watched, dumbfounded.  He wasn’t the least ashamed.  Through his tears, he spoke up,  “I’m sorry if music doesn’t do this for you.  This is why we make music.” And he walked out, leaving us to ponder his words and that moment. 

    I’ve never forgotten it.  And I’ve certainly never forgotten Charles Matheson’s willingness to show his love of music in the most nakedly vulnerable manner.          

    Fans, admirers, students, and friends of Charles Matheson can’t help but feel a mix of gratitude and awe for his long, memorable presence among us.                        

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    • Personalities
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Death
  • Eulogy for Elmer

    • Posted on Mar 16, 2008


    My dad Elmer lived five years shy of twice as long as my mother. Beany, as everyone called her, died when I was twenty.  Dad was fifty, and he lived forty-five years longer, until early morning last Monday.

    In that forty-five years he remarried, changed jobs, retired, traveled, and most of all became a role model as a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and friend. To everyone who knew him in one or another of these roles, he served almost as an ideal. Or at least that’s how it seems to me now, looking back on  six and a half decades as his son.

    Until my mother died he and I weren’t all that close.  He tended to be the reinforcer of her threats, as well as the distant, busy working man that so many fathers become to their younger children.  He lectured me on my sometimes unruly temper, and usually didn’t miss a chance to remind me about my general klutziness. 

    After Beany’s death we began to spend more time together.  He transformed into quite a different man, especially after he married Jane, our family’s longtime friend and his second love.  He became just plain fun, generous with his time, completely non-judgmental, and breathtakingly good-natured and optimistic.

    Over the years when he began to get down, he would mutter out loud,  ‘I’ve got to get my mind right” and sooner rather than later, he found a brighter side. He developed a mental habit of seeing goodness and humor everywhere. That’s a prescription every doctor would support, and probably one of the reasons he lived so long.

    He didn’t pursue happiness; he found it, in his friends, his cards, his jokes and joshing, which were almost constant, and his kindnesses to everyone.  As his neighbor Les Huth told me, he was the class act in our family. 

    Though he could never replace my mother, he made a world-class father.

    Ten days ago I woke him from one of his many naps, and I asked if he had been dreaming.  No, he said, but he had been thinking.  “What about?” I asked, wondering if he had caught a glimpse of an approaching light.  “I’m thinking what a great family I have,” he said. 

    And I was thinking about what a great father I had. We had grown into a mutual appreciation society, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

    Now, one of the many passions he bequeathed:  His love of music, and he and my mom encouraged me to sing and play almost before I could walk.  From my dad’s example, I learned to sing harmonies almost as effortlessly as he did.

    Angeleita and I sang this simple old folk song, not for him, but WITH him, last Saturday afternoon, a day and a half before he died.

    I’d like to ask my long-suffering family to join me in singing it today—from the back page of the program.  ("Down in the Valley")

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    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Death
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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