Phyllis Marie Mathews: Fought for independent life for herself and others
No one expected Phyllis Mathews to have much of a life. She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after she was born, the same year that parents of children with the condition were just starting United Cerebral Palsy to increase opportunities for people with disabilities. She died Wednesday at the age of 62.
It was 1949, and Martin and Barbara Mathews simply took their second-born home to love and teach her as best they could. They soon learned that she would teach herself, them and others lessons in self-sufficiency.
"She was a fighter who beat all the odds that were against her when she was born," said her father, Martin Mathews, president, CEO and co-founder of Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club. "She let people know that she was capable of doing things."
In recent years, Ms. Mathews had become increasingly ill from complications of cerebral palsy, including respiratory problems, and died on Wednesday. "Her heart just gave out," said her father.
Ms. Mathews died at Christian Hospital in north St. Louis County. She was 62 and had lived in Florissant at Willows Way, an assisted-living community for people with developmental disabilities.
Services for Ms. Mathews will be at 10 a.m., Mon., Feb. 20, immediately following visitation at Layne Renaissance Chapel of Austin A. Layne Mortuary.
Cerebral palsy, a neurological condition caused by damage to a part of the brain before, during or shortly after delivery, manifests differently in each person. It can range from mild to severe and can cause physical or mental disability or both.
Ms. Mathews never walked or had full use of her right hand, but it quickly became evident that she had a forceful personality and a mind to match.
"We knew she was sharp," said her father, who took to calling her "Philadelphia lawyer" because of her advocacy skills, of which her parents were often the target.
Living at home was fine, but despite having little formal education, she insisted on living on her own. In her mid-20s, she got a job and moved to assisted living.
She first worked at a United Cerebral Palsy day program and then Canterbury Enterprises, a sheltered workshop established by UCP to employ people with disabilities.
Canterbury employees do mailings, light assembly and packaging for companies -- like the 2 million plastic Easter eggs they are putting together for a carnival supply company. It's the kind of project Ms. Mathews did for 27 years.
She was one of the first employees through the door when Canterbury opened in 1983.
"Miss Phyllis retired because her health became poor; otherwise, she would have kept on coming," said Barbara Mayer-Douglas, Canterbury's training coordinator.
Ms. Mathews never missed a day of work and when she arrived, she made her presence known.
"She had a strong will and a mind of her own," Mayer-Douglas said. "Many people in the field of disabilities knew her well because if she needed something, she'd be on the phone trying to get it.
"She was well-spoken, very social and advocated for herself."
When she needed an electric wheelchair to relieve her arthritic hands so that she could go wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted, a few phone calls made it so.
"She drove that chair very well," Mayer-Douglas recalled laughing.
By example and constant effort, she encouraged others to take care of themselves.
"Sometimes I called her 'Mother Phyllis', because she kind of mothered (other employees) a little bit," Mayer-Douglas said.
Freedom And Life
After retiring, Ms. Mathews found a creative outlet that helped to mitigate the limitations of her declining health. Three days a week, she painted surreal watercolors at Fine Line Studios through a program sponsored by the Resources for Human Development.
One of her paintings was recently featured at the Sanford L. Smith Outsider Art Fair in New York. Other pieces will be featured at an art fair that opens May 11 at the Koken Art Factory in St. Louis.
"Almost all of her paintings have trees, which represented freedom and life for her, and a couple holding hands, which represented her relationship with Steven (Garner), her longtime boyfriend who died a few years ago," said Mandie Sehr, program supervisor at Fine Line Studios.
Canterbury Enterprises was not forgotten when Ms. Mathews became an artist.
A landscape adorns Mayer-Douglas' office; she donated other artwork to Canterbury's trivia night. It sold.
"I'm glad she was in my life," said Mayer-Douglas, who began to cry as she talked about Ms. Mathews. "We respected each other, but the bottom line was, we cared about each other."
Phyllis Marie Mathews was born May 1, 1949, at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in The Ville neighborhood near her home, during a time when the medical resources of "Homer G" as it was commonly known, were becoming increasingly strained by a growing African-American population.
To this day, her father believes negligence caused his daughter's disability.
"She apparently stopped breathing when she was left alone shortly after being born and no one checked on her," Martin Mathews said.
"But she never felt sorry for herself; she just worked hard to take care of herself. She was never bitter although she was put in a very difficult situation."
A ready-smile drew everyone to her -- co-workers, medical professionals, her father, whom she called every day.
"I'm going to miss the smile she always had waiting for her dad," he said.
Ms. Mathews was preceded in death by her mother, Barbara Albright Mathews, who died in 1997.
In addition to her father, she is survived by her sisters, Juanita Mathews, Betty Joe Mathews, Marilyn Mathews and Angelic Mathews (Glenn) Cole, all of St. Louis.
She is also survived by an aunt, Mildred Robinson, her nephew, Clayton Mathews, and nieces Isabeau Mathews, Rachael Mathews and Martin Washington, and a great niece, London Blakemore.
Ms. Mathews' visitation will be from 9-10 a.m., Mon., Feb. 20 at Austin A. Layne Mortuary in Layne Renaissance Chapel, 7239 West Florissant Ave. Funeral services will follow immediately at 10 a.m. Burial will be at St. Peter's Cemetery, 2101 Lucas and Hunt Road.
A scholarship fund to honor Ms. Mathew's life is being established and contributions would be welcomed at the Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club, 4245 North Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63115.
Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. To reach her, contact Beacon contributing editor Richard H. Weiss.