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The B n G club

We are reminded repeatedly—especially in recent weeks—that we live in a polarized community. Blacks and whites. Police and protestors. Rich and poor. Many St. Louisans would like to tell the world: “That’s not us.” Except the evidence seems pretty overwhelming that yes, it is us.

But maybe not entirely. Here’s the story of a couple of gentlemen who are also us. Their story, which is also our story, began in 1960 and continues to this day. What started with two baseball coaches—Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey (as the kids called them)—meeting under a shade tree in Handy Park, a few blocks east of Kingshighway and south of Natural Bridge, continues in the shadow of all our civic dysfunction. What did these two do that was so right in the midst of so much going on that was so wrong? The short answer is that Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey—to borrow a well-worn baseball cliché—kept their eyes on the ball.

Whatever their own differences—and there were quite a few—the two men believed education and character development were the paths to success. They built the club around baseball, then football, basketball, and swimming. Their teams were wildly successful, and turned out several athletes who would become All-Americans in college and compete in the Olympics and in the professional ranks. But as Mr. Mathews would readily confess, he used sports as bait, a way of engaging young people in learning teamwork and discipline that they could carry over to the classroom and on to college and careers.

Mr. Dickey and Mr. Mathews came from very different places. Mr. Mathews grew up in Neelyville, Missouri, in the southeast part of the state, just a few miles from the Arkansas border. He was the 11th of 13 children, son of a farmer/laborer, Ned, who worked from dawn to well into the night to feed his brood, and a no-nonsense, pistol-packing mom, Amanda, who read aloud from the Bible and the U.S. Constitution to her children, friends, and neighbors. The two were Abraham Lincoln Republicans, and one of Mr. Mathews’ nieces, Freda Towns Ballard, continues to serve today as a GOP committeewoman in Poplar Bluff.

For his own part, Mr. Mathews has voted for Ronald Reagan, but also Barack Obama. Though he grew up in a segregated community, he remembers kindnesses bestowed on his family by white people. In fact, he owes his name to the white physician who delivered Mrs. Mathews’ child, because he was imagining that the infant would grow up to be as influential and important as the man who set off the Protestant reformation.

As it turned out, Martin Luther Mathews took more of his cues from Dr. Martin Luther King, who was born four years after him. Mr. Mathews quoted often from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that speaks of a nation where our children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

That speech was delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, a couple of years after the founding of the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ Club. And yet you would never find Mr. Mathews at a protest. He respected protest, but left it to others while he focused on his young men (and later, girls).

Mr. Dickey was far more outspoken and race-conscious. Mr. Dickey, 14 years older, also grew up in a small town, Sardis, Mississippi. and moved to St. Louis with his family as a teenager. He was an outstanding Negro leagues player, and many said he could have been a major leaguer except that his best days came before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

He made his living as a postal worker. Like Mr. Mathews, he did not finish high school. His formal education ended with the 8th grade, but that did not keep him from educating himself. Mr. Dickey took great pride in his heritage. He became a Muslim, and taught himself Arabic. He read three newspapers a day, worked the New York Times crossword puzzle, played the harmonica, and traveled widely to 49 U.S states, and Canada and the Caribbean besides.

Mr. Dickey named his ball teams after African tribes. The former St. Louis aldermen and current businessmen, Michael and Steve Roberts, remember playing on a team called the Watusis. “Before Black power was the slogan, my grandfather preached black empowerment,” his granddaughter Kimberly MacLean told the St. Louis American in 2000.

When Mr. Dickey and Mr. Mathews did not see eye to eye, it had to do with fundraising and growing the club. Mr. Dickey wanted the club to remain rooted, operated, and supported in the African-American community through barbecues, bake sales, and banquets. Mr. Mathews sought support from everyone across the region, which started when he summoned the moxie to make a cold call to Al Fleishman, a founder of the FleishmanHillard public relations firm, after listening to him one day on KMOX radio. Fleishman hung up on Mathews at first, but after doing some checking on Mr. Mathews’ reputation, he introduced him to such St. Louis poohbahs as Chuck Knight and August A. Busch III, and the iconic Cardinals’ broadcaster Jack Buck.

They and many other business and civic leaders helped raise the $3 million necessary to build a campus at Kingshighway, just south of Interstate 70 where the club could offer more programs and services for both boys and girls.

The club’s image and reputation grew in large part because Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey were known to be absolutely selfless and focused on the kids. Both men had taken out second mortgages on their homes to support the club. Mr. Dickey never accepted a salary or inhabited an office. Mr. Mathews worked many years without pay, and then accepted much less than the industry standard for leaders of nonprofits. (For several years, Mr. Mathews moonlighted as the doorman at the tony high rise at 625 South Skinker. You can imagine the surprise of the tenants when they picked up the Globe-Democrat one morning in 1975 to find that their doorman was being honored as the newspaper’s Humanitarian of the Year.)

In 1982, President Reagan would visit the club, bringing even greater national recognition and support to Mathews-Dickey. For many, Reagan’s appearance at the club seemed incongruent. To that point, Reagan’s relationship with African-Americans had been rocky. He had won no friends when he launched his campaign two years earlier in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near the site where three Civil Rights workers had been murdered in 1964. He had also made racially tinged remarks about welfare queens.

In a political context, there probably couldn’t have been, and maybe shouldn’t have been, a meeting of the minds. But in the context of helping kids, Mr. Mathews, Mr. Dickey, and President Reagan could present a united front. Baseball had been a big part of Reagan’s past—he used to do recreations of baseball games on the radio—and so they could bond over that as well.

Mr. Dickey died in 2000, but Mr. Mathews continued on in the same way, building coalitions with civic leaders of all kinds. And as a result, he began to enjoy what people have come to call privilege, but it was kind that is earned, not simply inherited.

He used that privilege to find scholarships and jobs for his kids. He used it to support Jackie Joyner Kersee and to help her build a board as she set up her own foundation and established a boys’ and girls’ club in East St. Louis. And he extended his support to Donald Danforth III, scion of the Danforth family, who, as improbable as it might seem, really needed Mr. Mathews’ help. The Mathews-Dickey club served as an incubator for City Academy in the late 1990s, providing Danforth with the educational tools, and the time to raise money for a brick-and-mortar state-of-the-art school building that opened in 2004 right next door to the club. The building’s architect was Karl Grice, who grew up at Mathews-Dickey. He found his first job in St. Louis with McDonnell-Douglas thanks to Mr. Mathews’ help, and now serves as chair of the Mathews-Dickey board.

Mr. Mathews also used his privilege to mentor and bring together a phalanx of African-American business leaders, including Richard Mark, president of Ameren Illinois; Eric Bachelor, who developed and owned the Outback Steakhouses, and some of the Houlihan’s restaurants here; David Steward of Worldwide Technology, Inc., one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the U.S.; and John E. Jacob, former president of the National Urban League, and also the former executive vice-president of global communications at Anheuser-Busch. There isn’t anything that these men (along with quite a few African-American women executives) won’t do for Mr. Mathews when he makes an ask.

The work of Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey doesn’t replace the need for social justice and reform. It is not a parable about bootstrapping, nor a reproach to protesters. It does not take aim at the failings of the courts or the cops. But their work does shine a light on what can be accomplished when people keep their eye on the ball, bestowing their knowledge, their hard work, their generosity and their love on our children.

This is us, when we are at our best.

Richard H. Weiss is a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, editor, and writing coach. This story originally appeared on his blog, and is adapted from the book I Trust You With My Life: The story of Martin Luther Mathews and the many lives he transformed with cofounder Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. More information about the book can be found at itrustyouwithmylife.com.

By wmb3331

Isaiah Israel is a graduate of the University of Hawaii Pacific with a bachelors in Psychology and a deep love for history in which he believes that when you know the past you can understand the present and predict the future course of man and mankind and is the author of the best selling ebook The White Man's Burden Of Lies and Deceit.

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