In the wake of so much civic dysfunction, the work of Martin Luther Mathews and Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine shines a light on how to build comity and community.
We are reminded repeatedly – especially in recent years – that we live in a polarized community. Blacks and whites. Police and protestors. Rich and poor. #stlverdict #Ferguson #DelmarDivide.
Many St. Louisans would like to tell the world: “That’s not us.” Except the evidence seems pretty overwhelming that yes, it is us.
But maybe not entirely us. Here’s the story of a couple of gentlemen, who are also us. Their story, which is also our story, began in 1960 and continues to this day. The fruits of their labors were on display at the Fox Theatre just last August.
It was a benefit for the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. There you could find people of every hue celebrating the achievements of Martin Luther Mathews and the late Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine. In the audience were people who had marched in the streets in the wake of Ferguson and would be marching again weeks later when the Stockley verdict arrived. But there too were members of establishment, Republicans, and, most likely, Trump voters, too.
They were all dressed to the nines and most had forked over $100 and more to attend. But this gala was different from many soirees where folks show up to see and be seen. For many it was a celebration of the work they had done all that year to mentor children, sponsor an event, or promote Mathews-Dickey to others in their communities. It was a gathering also for M-D alumni, many who are now doctors, lawyers, engineers, public servants and, notably people in the helping professions, teachers, professors, social workers and coaches.
What started in 1960 with two baseball coaches – Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey (as the kids called them) – meeting under a shade tree in Handy Park continues today in the shadow of all our civic dysfunction. What did these two do that was so right in the midst of so much going on that was so wrong?
Two years ago, the Mathews-Dickey board asked me to write a history of the club and that was question that I tried to address. It culminated in publication of a book last month.
The short answer is that Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey – to borrow a well-worn baseball cliché – kept their eyes on the ball.
They built the club around baseball, then football, basketball, and swimming. Their teams were wildly successful and turned out several athletes who would become All Americans in college and compete in the Olympics and in the professional ranks. But as Mr. Mathews would readily confess, he used sports as bait, a way of engaging young people in learning teamwork and discipline that they could carry over to the classroom and on to college and careers.
Mr. Dickey and Mr. Mathews came from very different places and had different sensibilities.
Mr. Mathews has voted for Ronald Reagan, but also Barack Obama. Though he grew up in a segregated community in southeast Missouri, he remembers kindnesses bestowed on his family by white people.
You would never find Mr. Mathews at a protest. He respected protest, and most especially Martin Luther King Jr., but left that to others while he focused on his young men (and, later, girls).
Mr. Dickey was far more outspoken and race-conscious. Mr. Dickey, 14 years older, also grew up in small town, Sardis, Mississippi, and moved to St. Louis with his family as a teenager. Mr. Dickey took great pride in his heritage. He became a Muslim and taught himself Arabic. He named his ball teams after African tribes. The former St. Louis aldermen and current businessmen, Michael and Steve Roberts, remember playing on a team called the Watusis.
When Mr. Dickey and Mr. Mathews did not see eye to eye it had to do with fundraising and growing the club. Mr. Dickey wanted the club to remain rooted, operated and supported in the African-American community through barbecues, bake sales, and banquets. Mr. Mathews sought support from everyone across the region, which started when he made a cold call to Al Fleishman, a founder of the FleishmanHillard public relations firm, after listening to him one day on KMOX radio.
Fleishman and many other business and civic leaders helped raise the $3 million necessary to build a campus at Kingshighway, just south of Interstate 70, where the club could offer more programs and services for both boys and girls.
The club’s image and reputation grew in large part because Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey were known to be absolutely selfless and focused on the kids. Both men had taken out second mortgages on their homes to support the club.
In 1982, President Reagan would visit the club bringing national recognition and support to Mathews-Dickey. For many, Reagan’s appearance at the club seemed incongruent. To that point, Reagan’s relationship with African Americans had been rocky. But in the context of helping kids, Mr. Mathews, Mr. Dickey and President Reagan could present a united front.
Mr. Dickey died in 2000, but Mr. Mathews continued on in the same way, building coalitions with civic leaders of all kinds. And, as a result, he began to enjoy what people have come to call privilege, but it was kind that is earned, not simply inherited.
He used that privilege to find scholarships and jobs for his kids. He used it to support Jackie Joyner-Kersee and to help her build a board as she set up her own foundation and established a boys’ and girls’ club in East St. Louis. And he extended his support to Donald Danforth III, scion of the Danforth family, who as improbable as it might seem, really needed Mr. Mathews’ help. The Mathews-Dickey club served as an incubator for City Academy in the late 1990s, providing Danforth with the educational tools and the time to raise money for a brick-and-mortar state-of-the-art school building that opened in 2004 right next door to the club.
The work of Mr. Mathews and Mr. Dickey doesn’t replace the need for social justice and reform. It is neither a parable about bootstrapping, nor a reproach to protesters. But their work does shine a light on what can be accomplished when people keep their eyes on the ball, bestowing their knowledge, their hard work, their generosity and their love on our children.
This is us, when we are at our best.
Richard H. Weiss is a former Post-Dispatch reporter, editor and writing coach. This story is adapted from a book he wrote for the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls Club, “I Trust You With My Life,” the story of Martin Luther Mathews and the many lives he transformed with cofounder Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’& Girls’ Club. Find more information about the book at itrustyouwithmylife.com.
How to buy the book
“I Trust You With My Life,” the story of Martin Luther Mathews and the many lives he transformed with co-founder Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, can be purchased at itrustyouwithmylife.com for $30. The book features a foreword by Tony La Russa and the website includes videos, photos and other biographical material.