Man, 96, pays back Salvation Army for aid

November 18, 2009 11:16:31 AM PST
In 1932, during the thick of the Great Depression, a young man with only a quarter in his pocket set out to hitchhike from Texas to Pennsylvania. Joe Matthews was 18, a door-to-door salesman hawking silk womens stockings when hardly anyone could afford them. Christmas was coming. He missed his family.

Matthews made himself a promise: He would keep that quarter as far into the trip as possible.

"As long as I still had that quarter, I wasnt broke," Matthews said.

After all, money was the reason he had left Pennsylvania a year earlier. He spent one year in college before his mother told him that his family could no longer afford the tuition.

He followed his brother to find work in San Antonio, but he barely earned enough to survive.

So Matthews stuck his thumb out and set off on the 1,500-mile journey back home. He caught rides with whoever stopped, wherever they were going. Some days, he would make it only about 100 miles.

The rides were free, but food and lodging would cost money. Matthews slept in a few train stations and barns but quickly discovered one place that was always willing to help him: The Salvation Army.

In cities along the way, he would find a Salvation Army and ask the operators whether there were any jobs he could do. Despite his circumstances, he was determined not to be a charity case.

"I prided myself in never asking for anything for free," Matthews said. "I told them the truth: I didnt have hardly any money, but I didnt want anything I wasnt working for."

In exchange for cleaning up the dormitory rooms or other chores, he got a cot and a warm meal.

But the assistance went beyond blankets, soup and coffee. Passing through Indiana, he ripped his only pair of pants. Someone at the Salvation Army stitched on a purple patch.

In Oklahoma City, the Salvation Army fumigated his clothes. Some of the men passing through the shelter had lice. Like him, they were poor and desperate to find a job. But they had pride.

"During the Depression, you werent ashamed of being poor," Matthews said. "Because it wasnt your fault. ... Unless you lived through those days, its hard to explain it."

It was an exhausting trip. But 10 days after hitching his first ride, Matthews arrived at his familys home in Grove City, Pa. Thanks in large part to the Salvation Army, he kept his promise.

"I still had my quarter," he said.

Perhaps that trip changed his fate. If he hadnt made it home, maybe he wouldnt have tagged along with buddies who were enlisting at a local U.S. Navy recruiting office. On impulse, he signed up himself.

He may not have served in World War II. Or been elected National Commander of the American Legion in 1972. Or served as chairman of the advisory committee on Cemeteries and Memorials for the U.S. Veterans Administration.

He might not have met his wife and had two children. He might not have moved his family to Fort Worth to start the J.J. Matthews Co., a safety equipment supply business still operating at Felix and Hemphill streets.

Today, Matthews is 96. He still goes to work every morning with his son and two grandsons. He has built a life to be proud of.

He feels he owes the Salvation Army.

"They help so many, just like they helped me," he said.

On Veterans Day, Matthews volunteered to ring the Salvation Army bell outside a Walmart in south Fort Worth. In his red American Legion national commanders' cap, he leaned on a cane and stood next to the red donation pot.

Then he dropped in a quarter.


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