January 19, 2013 9:01:53 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The day dawned dark and cold, with ice-slicked streets and clouds heavy with impending snow.
Knowing the weather was supposed to be bad, Johnny Mathews, 64, rose earlier than usual Thursday morning. He didn't want to be late for work.
He walked into the kitchen of his West Point home and made a light breakfast of sausage and toast, washing it down with a diet orange soda. Then he slipped behind the wheel of his 2001 Chevrolet pickup truck and began easing his way toward Columbus and the Bluecutt Road post office, where he had worked as a distribution clerk for 19 years.
He knew he would have to be careful crossing the Highway 50 bridge. He did not know that a fallen tree lay in the road ahead.
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Mathews was a man of habit. He was never late. He never called in sick.
In the 17 years he and Dorothea Crump shared the work floor, she never knew him to miss a day -- for any reason. He didn't even like to take his vacation. He always said he preferred to be at work.
Every day, at 5 a.m., he greeted the truck that brings mail from the postal service's Grenada processing center to Columbus, and with lightning-quick hands, he distributed the mail to the carriers. He knew the 30-odd routes like no one else.
It would take three people to replace one Johnny Mathews, Postmaster Reba Jenkins always said. Every day, she walked past him and said, "Have I told you lately that you're my favorite?"
"No ma'am, not lately," he would say, grinning.
"Well, you are," she said to him Wednesday.
And he was.
About the time he should have been clocking in Thursday, colleagues began calling the hospitals to see if he had been in an accident. No one knew anything.
He died instantly, as soon as his truck hit the tree that lay across the road, Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant said. His vehicle then crossed the road, tumbled down an embankment and hit another tree before coming to a stop.
Law enforcement found Mathews while responding to another call at 4:58 a.m. -- a four-car accident caused by the same fallen tree.
There was nothing anyone could do.
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Mathews was the third of four children born to Beatrus and Lula B. Mathews in the Waverly community of West Point.
Even as a child, "John Amos," as the family called him, was serious-minded, says his sister, Vivian Mathews Presley, of Clarksdale. He wasn't exactly shy -- he was a popular trumpet player in the Fifth Street High School band -- but he kept to himself.
He earned a bachelor's degree in math at Jackson State University and served two years on Okinawa with the U.S. Marine Corps. He had indicated an interest in moving to Chicago, but when he returned from Japan, those plans had changed.
He settled down in West Point, not far from his parents, and took a job with Columbus Fire and Rescue, where he remained for 20 years before retiring as captain.
After his father's death, his mother developed Alzheimer's and he moved into the family home to care for her. His brother, Eddie Mathews, cared for her also, but Johnny was her primary caregiver, and he dedicated his life to her well-being.
He never complained, not when she refused to take her medicine, not even when he had to work all night, then drive her to the doctor in Tupelo the next morning. Instead of wearing him down, it seemed to fulfill something in him that he needed, his brother says.
Johnny never married and never had children. His parents, his work and his church were his life, and he wanted nothing more than to be on the little plot of land where he was raised, living out a quiet, godly life.
He served as a deacon and treasurer in his childhood church, Mt. Pisgah Waverly, and he was known for his ability to turn the complexities of the Bible into lessons that made sense to the average layman. Crump says she often asked him to explain Bible verses to her. She always felt better, understood a little more clearly, after he had parsed their meaning.
He spent the last night of his life, Wednesday, leading his Bible study group.
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Since his death, friends, family and colleagues are piecing together the life of a man they loved but never truly knew. Each holds an element of truth, but only Mathews himself holds the entirety.
He was always private, a bit of a loner, Crump says.
She knew he had a sister, but she didn't know about his other two siblings. Sometimes, while sharing lunch at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, which he declared had the best food in Columbus, she would talk to him about her life -- her children, her family, her worries. He always listened. But he didn't volunteer similar information.
She never saw him drink or smoke, never heard him speak of having a "lady friend" or wanting companionship. When her parents died, coworkers gave her a card, but Johnny bought his own card, slipping a $100 bill inside. To thank him, she made his favorite dessert -- a hospitality pie which she insisted he come to her house to accept.
She didn't even know his age. He seemed so spry, so full of life, that when a newscaster said he was 64 at the time of his death, she thought they must be mistaken.
When she asked him how he stayed so healthy, he told her he took multi-vitamins he bought from the GNC store. At his home, his sister found hundreds of books, mostly about religion or health and natural remedies. If he read fiction, she saw no evidence of it.
He loved The Temptations, the Mississippi State Bulldogs and food. He could put away more food than anyone would expect for a man of his size, enjoying everything from your standard "meat and three" to candy bars and green tea -- the benefits of which he proclaimed to everyone who would hold still long enough to listen.
But most of all, he was exactly who he was, no pretense, no apologies.
"You wonder about a person who lives a long time and isn't married and doesn't have children," says Presley, his sister. "But I think he was very content with the life he had. He was true to himself. He knew what he liked and what he didn't like, and he had a peace about him that brought contentment."
His funeral will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at Mt. Pisgah church. He will be buried in the Union Star Baptist Church Cemetery, alongside his mother and father.
He is survived by his siblings, Vivian Mathews Presley, of Clarksdale; Mandy Mathews Lee, of Dixmoor, Ill., and Eddie Clyde Mathews, of Park Forest, Ill.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.