The Fall of a Friend
for Charles Matthews
Submitted by Helen Bridge
I first met Charles Matthews in 1968, when we were both students at
Cal State, Hayward. We had a few things in common: a major in
English, a birthday only months apart, a love of poet William
Stafford, and a career goal of being a teacher. Charles was bright
and funny. I liked him enormously.
When I finished my M.A. in late summer, 1970, I applied for a job at
Chabot College, and so did Charles. He landed the single full-time
position. I got an hourly class. It was four more years before I got
another shot at a full-time job. This time, I was successful.
Charles, by now, was already a well-established member of the
division, and he immediately welcomed me as an old friend and
Over the years that followed, caught up in the increasing demands of
teaching English classes, grading papers, participating in division
and campus activities, we each juggled work and family life, me,
with three kids and four step kids at home; Charles, also with a
wife, children and a few step children. We compared notes, teaching
hints, observations about colleagues and bosses. He frequently
stopped by my office (as did many of my other friends in the
division) to get a handful of M&M’s from the bottomless jar on my
desk. And as he did with a lot of us, he sometimes stopped by during
an office hour just to chat. Everybody in our division would say, I
think, that Charles was a special friend of theirs. He just had that
way about him.
One of Charles’s biggest fans was our division chair, Sally Anne
Fitzgerald. She saw in him many of those qualities that make a good
teacher and colleague. Sally loved to give dinner parties, and
several of us were fortunate enough to be invited to dine at her
home every once in awhile. Charles was also one of her favorite
guests, and we spent several wonderful evenings over dinner and
wine, just talking about the school that all of us loved.
When Charles had his first heart attack, all of us were shocked and
frightened. Then, when he stabilized and was considered out of
danger, we relaxed a bit, expecting him to make a full, if cautious,
recovery. When he returned to his duties several weeks later, some
of us said that it was too soon. Charles, however, came back
cheerful as ever, and although he may have moved a little more
slowly, his spirits seemed high. He even resumed his duties as
president of the Faculty Association, even at a time when contract
negotiations were particularly contentious.
On April 29, 1995, Sally had one of her special dinner parties, with
guests Charles and his wife, Toni, David and Maria Arovola, and my
husband Les and me. During our dinner conversation, I told Charles,
with some worry, that he looked tired. Later in the kitchen, Les
gave me a mild scolding, observing that one should always encourage
a recovering patient. I agreed, but half-heartedly. The evening
ended with laughter, hugs, and an expectation that all would be
well. The next week, however, Charles had to return briefly to the
hospital for observation of some troubling symptoms. One day after
he came back to work, he went to the District Office to help with
negotiations, which by then seemed hopelessly stuck. The union’s
chief negotiator just couldn’t bring things to closure, it seemed,
and complaints about her bargaining strategies were increasingly
heated among some faculty. As usual, he wanted to help. I saw
Charles in the halls of Building 700, just before he went off to the
bargaining session. He looked wan and tired. We exchanged a few
pleasantries and he headed out.
During the bargaining session that Friday afternoon, Charles excused
himself to go to the restroom. When he didn’t return for some time,
someone (perhaps Nancy Cowan) stepped outside the bargaining room to
check on him. She found him slumped unconscious on the floor. Nancy
and Charlotte Bartel, both nurses, ministered to him until an
ambulance arrived. He was pronounced dead at Valley Memorial
Hospital in Livermore shortly after.
Former Language Arts chairman Leland Kent shouldered the responsibility of conveying the
terrible news to us. Like virtually everyone in the district, I was
horrified and unbelieving at first. I admit to some anger as well,
nebulous but deep, about his generosity and devotion to duty, even
in his fragile state. I cried a lot that night.
When I walked into Building 700 the next Monday morning at about
7:30 AM, I found two or three bouquets of flowers in front of
Charles’s office, right down the hall from my own. By the end of the
day, that number had grown to more than a dozen, and in the few days
following, many more than that. The campus was shaken to its core.
Everybody knew Charles. No matter where you walked, you’d find
clusters of people talking in hushed tones about the tragedy. The
week’s edition of the Spectator had a front-page story about it.
Close-knit faculty members in Language Arts were weepy and
incredulous for days. How could it have happened?
Charles’s funeral was held in Oakland, at the C.P. Bannon Funeral
Home. The hall was packed with Charles’s friends from Chabot and Las
Positas, as well as his large extended family. Afterwards, a brief
graveyard service was held at Evergreen Cemetery. When that was
over, Les and I felt a need to see where Charles was being buried.
We were led to the spot, which at the time was being used as an access
road, dusty and dirty, without any grass. Les pointed out a large
mounded, grassy area nearby, a mass grave for victims of Jonestown.
In the days that followed, the college had several memorial
gatherings in Charles’s honor. All of them were packed with friends
who loved him. Many people who didn’t usually say things in public
gatherings stood up to pay tribute to the friend that they--and
we--had lost. The memorials were comforting, but it took a long time
for us all to get over Charles’s death. And maybe we never will,
An afterward: Charles's death caused an outpouring of written and
oral expressions of grief, even from some unlikely sources.
For myself, always nothing more than a workman
of ordinary prose, I wrote the first poem of my life. Isn't that an
embarrassing admission from an English teacher? It's not very good,
but I'm sharing it to make a point.
Facing the Fall
Not all of us are poets.
How, then, do we express our loss?
Mute blooms, dying now beside your door,
Stately messages, and sad,
speak to us.
They tell of your teaching, your manners,
your muscular intellect.
From three decades’ bond, these things
Silently echo my knowing.
My last memories lean another way.
One old pol to another, you shared stories,
Talking through the tough times.
There you were, you said,
Balancing on highwire talks,
Crowds on both sides below
Chanting, “Make a deal! Mustn’t stall!”
Trying to reach the other side,
How could we possibly know you would fall?
The crowds are quiet now.
We reach toward each other,
Contract and contact at last
an unexpected union.
Charles, you gave us the costliest gift,
One last aerial act, yet leaving us lost.
No wonder we weep.
Even spectators can see.
Your life and sudden death
For all that is right--and wrong--with this place.
Helen Bridge, May 14, 1995
My dear, dear friend Dick Albert is a REAL poet,
and an eloquent one. Here is what he wrote. I think this is a
wonderful testament to Charles's life.
Elegy for Charles
To those of us for whom the sun
rises again, an old surprise,
the passing of Charles Matthews shows
how foolish are our certainties:
the great ones--that our eyes will greet
the morning headlines once again,
the little ones---that there is time
to mow the lawn before the rain,
that breakfast is a night away
or May will turn green hills to brown.
Confidently we prepare
new hopes and fears to lead us on,
then one day one of us is gone
and never the worst, as you surmise;
death is quite indiscriminate
this flower lives, that flower dies.
No prophet and no calculus
of probabilities explain
a death that shatters so much good,
so as we turn in loss and pain
much at a loss before our grief,
the life and death of Charles proclaim:
live life fully to the end,
all is only for a time.
Dick Albert, May 1995
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