A Life: Patricia Frank Mathews, 1942-2018; ‘She Didn’t Waste Any Time Getting Involved’

  • Patsy Matthews is photographed with her husband John at Simon Pearce restaurant in Quechee, Vt., in 2007. (Family photograph)

  • Patsy Matthews is photographed with Louis, the family dog, in 2010. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 05, 2018

Woodstock— A friend gave Patsy Mathews a refrigerator magnet that now is stuck on the fridge door at her North Street home.

“Stop me before I volunteer again!” it declares.

Patsy Mathews was volunteering nearly right up until the end of her life — she was still serving meals to seniors on her regular Friday lunchtime shift at the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock up until a few months before she died earlier this year — even when it was evident that the cancer that she had lived with for more than four years was slowing her down.

“It was becoming hard for her,” said Corwin Sharp, who was Mathews’ serving partner for 10 years at Thompson. “Serving lunch is two hours on your feet and running around. People would say, ‘Patsy, why not take it easy,’ but she kept going. She was 100 percent committed.”

Mathews’ volunteer service at the Thompson Center — and in Woodstock generally — went far beyond ferrying plates between the kitchen and tables to seniors once a week. She also was a Thompson board member and served as the organization’s president for two terms. She did two stints as president of Pentangle Arts Council in addition to sitting on the board and even filled-in as executive director during a critical period when the arts organization was struggling financially to help get it back on its feet.

If taking on those responsibilities was not enough, there was more: Mathews was a corporator of the Norman Williams Public library and served on the board of the Woodstock Area Job Bank and as an open house guide during the town’s annual Wassail Weekend. In recognition of her contributions to the community, the Woodstock Rotary Club named Mathews Citizen of the Year in 2014, and this year’s annual Town Report in March will be dedicated in her name.

“Some people take their time,” said Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the gift shop Unicorn on Central Street in Woodstock and who served alongside Mathews on the Pentangle board. “But Patsy came in and right away said, ‘I’m going to be a part of this community.’ She didn’t waste any time getting involved.”

The 75-year-old Mathews died Jan. 8, 2018, at her home on North Street in Woodstock, with her husband John and stepdaughter Suzanne by her side. A bed had been set up in the living room, where she had been attended by hospice caregivers. Although she had begun to noticeably decline since Thanksgiving, in the preceding weeks she had “rallied her strength,” for a last family visit at Christmas, even ordering presents by phone and online, her husband recalled.

Besides her husband and stepdaughter, Mathews is survived by her stepson John, his wife, Linda, and grandchildren Anna and Alex.

Patsy Mathews’ roots were a long way from the picturesque New England town that she embraced later in life.

Born in Nutley, N.J., the daughter of a 1930s and 1940s folk singing duo whose father abandoned her mother when she was a baby, Patsy — she never took to the name Patricia — went to live with her grandparents in Pensacola, Fla., when she was 8-years old (she would only meet her father, and then only for a weekend, when she was 18).

A natural athlete — or “tomboy” as sporty girls were then called — Patsy had one goal coming of age in a military town (home of the Pensacola Naval Air Station) and that was to avoid the fate of many of her friends who married aviators and others in the service.

“That was not the life she wanted,” her husband John Mathews said.

Patsy Frank headed north to college — George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she studied English and journalism. She got married, divorced, and went to work for an education advocacy organization before landing a job with the U.S. Department of Education, where for a period she worked with Native American tribes in administering program grants.

It was her grandfather, a retired New York publicist, who made sure his granddaughter had a “rigorous” education and drilled her in English grammar and writing — skills that were to prove invaluable when, years later, she would be tasked with producing complex department budget documents and drafting testimony for her bosses when they appeared in committees before Congress.

While working in Washington in the education field Patsy met John Mathews, a journalist on the education beat at the Washington Star, the city’s No. 2 newspaper. They fell in love and married in 1980. When the Star folded in 1981, John Mathews joined NBC News, where he worked as a news producer. It was also at NBC News that John Mathews became close friends with Bob Hager, a NBC News correspondent who had a second home in Woodstock.

After a stay at the Hager’s Woodstock home during a visit to Vermont, the Mathews began to consider the idea of retiring to the area and in 2003 they sold their home in the Washington suburb of Cabin John, Md., and moved to Woodstock.

Relocating from the Washington metropolitan area to Woodstock “was for Patsy practically a return to the simpler life she knew as child” in Florida, John Mathews said. “Here was a place where practically everyone knew your name and you knew theirs … the place of village life, the beauty of Woodstock and Vermont, the history that surrounded her were a great inspiration.”

Once settled in Woodstock, Patsy Mathews quickly threw herself into the community, friends said, devoting endless hours of work to her two greatest passions: the Thompson Senior Center and Pentangle Arts Council.

“She sort of fell out of the sky and into the Upper Valley and in no time at all knew everybody,” said Liza Deignan, president of Woodstock property management firm Ellaway Property Services and currently president of the Thompson board.

Deignan said Patsy Mathews’ outgoing nature and sunny personality, however, belied the way she handled herself during board meetings. “She was so successful but demur about it,” Deignan said.

“Patsy’s talent in board meetings was to wait until everyone in the room had their say. She’d sit, and wait until everyone was finished, and then somehow managed to take all the comments and distill them into a sentence.”

At Pentangle, assistant director Serena Nelson recalled how Mathews would keep the board meetings focused and members on point if they began to stray off subject.

“Patsy would always go back and say: ‘What is your mission? What are your core values? How does this event or program move us forward in a way that advances on our mission?’ ” Nelson said.

Mathews was critical in helping to extricate Pentangle out of its financial difficulties in 2011, said Susan Inui, a retired Woodstock real estate broker who served with Mathews on Pentangle’s board. Mathews stepped in as interim director after the previous director left.

“I remember some of the early board meetings when Patsy was still chair and how she spoke kindly of the previous executive director who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Inui said. “She spoke candidly to the board about where we were and how we got there and how to get out of the conundrum … she ran the office until we had the staffing to do it.”

Stepping into the breach with a fix was Patsy Mathews’ trademark.

Deanna Jones, executive director of Thompson Senior Center, said that Mathews, who had already begun treatments for her cancer, nonetheless volunteered to substitute for Jones when she was out for six weeks during pregnancy.

“I had morning sickness but she was dealing with her own nauseousness,” said Jones, still marveling at the memory. Moreover, Mathews’ reputation to analyze and deconstruct complex documents and boil down their contents was undiminished.

“It had been many years since our bylaws had been reviewed and she took on the project of updating our bylaws, really cleaning them up, the language around the terms,” Jones related. “Her impact on our organization is long-term.”

Living in Woodstock, Mathews adapted easily to the casual Vermont lifestyle, friends said, wearing brightly colored pairs of mismatched Solmate socks and hiking and running on Mt. Tom with her beloved black curly haired Standard Poodle, Louis, “with boots or snowshoes, if needed,” her husband John said.

And then there was Patsy Mathews’ well-known sense of humor, “almost dry wit, sometimes a bit sarcastic. Which I loved,” Corwin Sharp, her long-time lunch serving partner at Thompson explained.

Sharp recalled once how a table of German-speaking seniors — lunch tables are periodically set aside for diners to converse in a foreign language they know — was lingering and chatting long after all the other diners had left. Since the servers also clean up, Mathews and Sharp had to hang around until the German-speaking table was finished and were growing impatient.

“Patsy had to run off to some other volunteer activity but the German people were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave. Then she said ‘I’m going to go ask them something,’ ” Sharp said. He watched Mathews walk over to the table and shortly afterward he saw everyone get up from the table and leave.

“What did you say?” Sharp asked Mathews.

“Oh, I just asked them how do you say it’s time to go home in German?” Mathews told her.

“It was a very sweet, Patsy kind of way,” Sharp said, in how Mathews dispatched a sticky situation. “She was great fun to work with.”

In 2013, seemingly out of the blue because her health appeared outward healthy, Mathews was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Typically the prognosis for extended life when cancer is that developed is rare.

But treatment, in the form of chemotherapy and radiation, held the disease at bay for several years. When it metastasized to her liver, a new immunotherapy treatment worked well enough for a year that it allowed a trip to Tuscany in 2015 where the Mathews stayed in a countryside villa.

Despite the burden of the treatments, friends said that Mathews’ spirit was undiminished and she continued her volunteer service and favorite activities such as singing tenor in the choir of Woodstock’s Unitarian Universalist church.

“She was steadfastly there for our rehearsals,” said Inui. “Even after she didn’t have full lung capacity, Patsy would do her darndest to be there and sing. She had incredible heart and grit.”

Last September, five month before she died, Mathews believed she still had more to give. As the Thompson Center was gearing up for a new year, Mathews called Deignan to say she was fired up to return for a third term on the organization’s board.

“Really?” Deignan recalls incredulously asking Mathews, knowing how her health was precarious. “You really want to do that with your time?”

It never came to pass — as the autumn weeks passed, Mathews progressively grew weaker and lost weight and energy.

But friends in Woodstock said the impact Patsy Mathews had on the town will be sustained for a long time.

“The thing about Patsy that transcends all the lucky nonprofits she helped is that what mattered to her is that people work toward a common goal to be successful,” said Deignan. “She was driven to help people succeed. It was really the underlying current of her energy.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.