In a letter dated June 8, 1984, my grandmother, Marty Mathis, wrote about her husband,
Gene is a staunch supporter of the poultry industry, as you know, has a wonderful dry sense of humor, [and] is a firm believer in loyalty to America and to the infallible word of God. He does not drink, smoke, tell dirty jokes, or curse. In fact, I have never heard him utter a single curse word, though he may lie a little when he discusses politics. He dislikes telling anyone what to do. He thinks each of us should know exactly what to do and do it to the best of our ability.
I think he’s a most unusual fellow, and I’m proud to have shared my life with him.
A most unusual fellow. My grandfather, Gene Mathis, was indeed a most unusual fellow. And I mean that, like Marty did, in the most affectionate way. It was a good thing that he was unusual — good for his wife, good for his children, good for his grandchildren, and good for everyone who knew him.
What we’re in desperate need of today is not more usual fellows. What we could use a lot more of is unusual fellows, like Granddaddy. No doubt, we could easily list more than a dozen ways — a whole egg carton full and more — that Gene Mathis was unusual, but let me celebrate the three that feel most significant for me, and I pray they’ll capture for you as well the heart of this man we love and esteem.
1. He Was a Listener.
First, he was unusual because he was a listener. Marty wrote in her letter, which is manifestly humorous to those of us who knew her, “Gene talks all the time, never giving me a chance.” We all know Gene didn’t talk all the time. Marty talked all the time. She was a teacher; he was “the staunch supporter of the poultry industry.” The sheer fact that he was happily married to her for almost seventy years is a tribute to the man’s ability to listen — or at least to pretend he was listening!
Listening is a lost art today. In a world in which everyone seems to be talking — talking heads on TV, talking on cellphones, tapping out texts, pecking at keyboards, rushing to social media to give the latest “hot take” on sports and politics — in such world of talk, Granddaddy was a breath of fresh air because he listened. He was indeed unusual — “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
In celebrating Gene as “a most unusual fellow” because he was a listener, we’re also celebrating that he was humble. When every mouth around you is open, how will you resist the urge to speak? Humility. Gene was a listener because he was humble.
Not that he didn’t talk. He did. He just made it count. When Granddaddy spoke, it mattered. He measured his words. He knew every word had a cost, and he spent them with care. When he offered his invaluable advice, it was pointed, perceptive, and powerful.
And when he did open his mouth, if it wasn’t wisdom, it was humor. Marty couldn’t help but mention his “wonderful dry sense of humor.” To know him as friend was to know him as funny. I will never forget Granddaddy’s jokes at the dinner table.
I have a friend who said to me last week, “This new hearing aid is amazing!” So I asked him, “What kind is it?” He answered, “About quarter after three.”
One day an officer pulled over a car because he could see a pig was riding in the passenger seat. He asked the driver, “What are you doing with the pig?” The driver answered, “I’m taking him to the zoo.” The officer thought he understood and sent him on his way. The next day the officer saw the same car, with the same man and the same pig in the passenger seat. So he pulled him over and said, “I thought you were taking him to the zoo.” The man answered, “I did. He liked it so much that now I’m taking him to the fair!”
And as you know, Granddaddy not only said funny things, but he did funny things too.
He was unusual in the bias he had against umpires, referees, and all manner of officials in sporting competitions, especially in games involving the Clemson Tigers. He was notorious enough for his barking at the refs that I remember my dad buying Granddaddy a referee doll, with Velcro arms and legs, that you could rip off and throw across the room, if needed, during the big game.
Granddaddy also had unusual sayings, like, “Ham hock, pig, or pork — anyway to slice it, it’s bologna.” Or when praising a good-tasting first bite, “That’ll make your tongue flap back and knock your brains out.”
And of course, he was unusual for his thriftiness. I remember very distinctly running errands with him on the west side of town, over at Greenville Mall, when he noticed we were low on gas. We were not yet done with our errands on that side of town, but Granddaddy drove all the way over to the eastside (it was at least Taylors, if not Greer) because he knew of a station that was three cents cheaper per gallon than anywhere else in Greenville.
2. He Was a Servant.
Second, he was unusual because he was a servant. This also, like listening, is an expression of humility. My one prevailing mental image of Granddaddy is with broom in hand, sweeping the driveway.
He served tirelessly. First, he served our country. After he finished his freshman year at Clemson, he went into the army and served during World War II in France and Germany, where he was wounded in combat and received the Purple Heart medal of honor, as well as two bronze stars for heroic valor. When he came home, he and Grandmommy moved to Santa Barbara where he taught ROTC for three years. In all, he served Uncle Sam for eight years. Then he finished at Clemson and graduated in 1952 in poultry science.
Then throughout his life, he served others. And did he ever serve. He was selfless. He noticed the needs of others and took tangible steps to meet them. He served his four children. He served his church, where he was a deacon and even deacon chairman many times. He served his grandchildren. He served in France, Germany, Santa Barbara, Clemson, Sumter, Newberry, Columbia, Greenville, and Spartanburg.
My youngest sister, Mary, was born when I was nine, in third grade, and Granddaddy and Grandmommy leveraged their retirement years to regularly help my parents with their four kids under the age of ten, and then as we grew.
So after military service, and then a life of service, Granddaddy retired to even more service, not less. I am so glad he and Grandmommy didn’t retire to Boca Raton but stayed right in Greenville and gave their freest years in happy service to their children and grandchildren.
And of course, the crowning gem of his life of service was caring so well for Grandmommy her last ten years. For her funeral three years ago, I wrote,
An essential part of her legacy is that she was never alone. There was Granddaddy Gene. There he was, and there he has been. When I think of Grandmommy’s voice, the one word I hear her saying over and over again, with fondness and great respect, is “Gene.” And when I think of Granddaddy’s voice, it’s “Marty.” And this last decade she was never alone, as Granddaddy stood so faithfully at her side, sacrificing to meet her needs. He moved his life to Spartanburg to see her daily, to fulfill every last ounce of his husbanding covenant, to make good, like few still do, on his promise, “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Marty’s legacy will forever be tied to the amazing, unusual, tireless service and faithfulness of her husband. He loved her as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).
Amazing, unusual, tireless service. Granddaddy was a leader, but he was about the furthest thing from bossy. He led wife and family not as a sergeant, but as a servant.
If God himself, in human flesh, could wash his disciples’ feet, it was not below Gene Mathis, as head of his household, to lead through service. In fact, it was essential. Granddaddy’s unusual service was no evidence of weakness, but a revelation of strength.
Jesus said to his disciples,
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42–44)
When Grandmommy wrote in that 1984 letter, “He dislikes telling anyone what to do,” she meant in the best sense. He wanted others to learn to obey from the heart (not just conform externally), which doesn’t happen by bossing and lording it over, but by listening and serving. And he helped others learn to serve not by mandate but by example. And in the end, that served him so well.
Gene could not have served Marty so well her last ten years if his family had not served him so well. Julie, Blair, Skip, Pop, you learned it from him. He didn’t have to tell you what to do. You saw him serve. You saw him love. You saw him meet needs. You saw him care for Grandmommy, and then you walked in his steps as you served him in his final days. I believe God was pleased by your service.
And my mom, in particular, cared as well for Granddaddy as any daughter-in-law could. She lost her own father when she was 36. I’m 36; I can’t imagine how hard that would be. After her own dad died, Granddaddy became another father for her, these last thirty years, and she served him almost as tirelessly as he served Grandmommy.
3. He Was a Christian.
Now, finally, Granddaddy was unusual, not only because he was a listener and a servant, but also because he was a Christian. All three of these are expressions of humility. Being a Christian is not an accomplishment. It’s not something you earn. It’s not something you achieve. Being a Christian is the most humbling thing. It means admitting that you’re not strong enough. You’re not good enough. To be a Christian is to admit that you’re weak, and to admit that some very dark things dwell in your heart.
And being a Christian makes you more unusual today than it did when Granddaddy was young. And this is a good thing in many ways. Hopefully, we have less pretenders today. When Christianity is usual, there is greater pressure to pretend. When Christianity becomes more unusual, pretenders fall away.
It may have been true that Gene Mathis, as Marty wrote, did not “drink, smoke, tell dirty jokes, or curse,” but this is not what made him a Christian. What made him a Christian was receiving, by faith, the goodness of Christ in place of his own wickedness, and the strength of Christ for his own weakness.
Served by Jesus
I do believe that Granddaddy heard, on Wednesday evening, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23). But don’t think that Granddaddy served Jesus in the same way he served wife and family and country. As John Piper has said,
The difference between Uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that Uncle Sam won’t enlist you in his service unless you are healthy, and Jesus won’t enlist you unless you are sick.
The next verse in the passage we just read in Mark 10 about servant leadership is verse 45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
As a Christian, Granddaddy’s fundamental orientation on Jesus was not one of serving, but being served. Jesus served Granddaddy. Jesus gave him strength when he was week. Jesus produced in him a harvest of joy and peace and willing service. Jesus was his Lord, and Jesus was his Savior. As Grandmommy wrote, he was “a firm believer . . . in the infallible word of God.”
Never Been Happier
I am so glad that Granddaddy did not pretend at Christianity. And I’m confident that he would say nothing would honor his legacy more than if his death became the occasion for someone to say, “I’m not going to pretend anymore.” This life is not a game. Heaven and hell are real. Eternal misery or eternal happiness is at stake.
On Wednesday, August 23, when Granddaddy died on the day we had been praying, the sweetest thing that happened wasn’t that he was reunited with Grandmommy on the very day of their 70th wedding anniversary — sweet as that was. The sweetest thing is that together they saw Jesus. Everything Granddaddy’s restless soul ever longed for became reality. He saw the very glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Gene Mathis is now happier than we can even imagine. The reunion with Grandmommy is precious, but to depart and be with Christ, that is far better (Philippians 1:23). Marty and Gene are now marveling in the presence of Christ, and they have never been happier.