Alumni Plaza the center of the Dowagiac campus


Thelda Mathews greets Trustee Dr. Elaine Foster

Thelda Mathews greets Trustee Dr. Elaine Foster

Daniel, Sarah and David with his mother

Daniel, Sarah and Dr. David Mathews with David's mother

Joe, David, Tom with Thelda

Presidents Dr. Joe Odenwald and Dr. David Mathews with Board of Trustees Chairman Tom Jerdon and Thelda Mathews

Thelda chats with K&M's Mike McLoughlin

Thelda Mathews chats with K&M’s Mike McLoughlin

Chairman Jerdon presents her crystal book

Chairman Tom Jerdon presented Mrs. Mathews with an inscribed crystal book

Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Brent Brewer

SMC President Dr. Joe Odenwald and Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Brent Brewer with Thelda Mathews

Thelda Mathews Honored as an SMC Founder

Published on June 20, 2024 - 5 p.m.

Thelda Mathews wasn’t on Southwestern Michigan College’s founding board or any subsequent board, either.

But she was instrumental in getting a Cass County community college on the ballot 60 years ago in November 1964.

Mathews and other women in the founders’ kitchen cabinet of trusted advisors designed the iconic seal still used today, from as small as lapel pins to as large as 1st Source Bank Fieldhouse and every size in between, including the podium from which she was lauded June 19 in the Foundation Room by Chairman Tom Jerdon and President Dr. Joe Odenwald.

Jerdon, who joined the board in 1991, succeeded her husband, 50-year chairman Dr. Fred L. Mathews, in 2015.

Odenwald followed her son, Dr. David M. Mathews, SMC’s longest-serving president at 18 ½ years, in 2020.

The seal’s six-sided hexagon aligns with Mathews Library’s architecture in symbolizing transformation.

Pyramids are based on the idea that certain basic needs must be met before individuals can progress up the hierarchy to more complex needs.

She personally contributed “knowledge for all” across an open book.

The “flowers” are dogwood blossoms, which inspired Dowagiac’s Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, of which Jerdon, a 1984 SMC graduate, was the charter president.

“The Board of Trustees comes here today to honor one of our founders,” Jerdon said. “While Thelda wasn’t one of the original trustees, she no doubt gave as much to SMC as any person ever elected to the board.

“The seal appears everywhere. In Alumni Plaza in the center of campus and at both college entrances. The seal adorns all of the gowns during Commencement and service pins. SMC is open to anyone who wants to further their knowledge and abilities.”

Winning the election was just the start.

“Thereafter,” Jerdon said, “she worked tirelessly to convince taxpayers to vote for a college. It was not easy in those days without email or social media. Everything was accomplished either in person, by letter or by phone call. Thelda and others were the soldiers behind the scenes. Her support of her late husband, Dr. Fred, and personal sacrifices made cannot be understated — especially in the college’s formative years in the 1960s and ’70s.”

Jerdon presented her a crystal book with the seal and motto and inscribed, “In grateful appreciation for your paramount work to establish the college, to create the college seal and motto and as a devoted educator and author, the Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees honors you, Thelda Livingston Mathews.”

As she downsized from her longtime Burmax Park home to an apartment, she needed to decide what art to hang.

She surprised some by allotting limited wall space for a plaque from the National Sculpture Society in New York.

“That’s the only plaque I ever received,” she justified its inclusion. “It now has a companion.”

Mrs. Mathews, who led Dowagiac’s Christmas parade in 2019, does have a sculpture downtown in Beckwith Park.

Tuck Langland presented “Solitude” in October 2011 to “honor Thelda Mathews, whose vision and dedication brought public art to the community of Dowagiac.”

Fifteen sculptures her Dogwood Visual Arts Committee recruited constitute perhaps the finest collection per-capita in America, according to a Smithsonian senior curator.

She published a children’s book, The Squoze, in 2022.

A teaching job brought the New Albany, Ind., native and Indiana State graduate to Dowagiac.

In 1952, Mathews moved here to teach sixth grade in the old Central building (where the Don Lyons health center is) before it was demolished. She then taught at Patrick Hamilton Elementary for two years when it was brand-new.

After Scott and David finished college, Mathews pursued a degree in marketing and communications from Western Michigan University.

Michael McLoughlin, who hired her at K&M Machine-Fabricating in Cassopolis to manage its sculpture division for 28 years, attended Wednesday’s presentation.

Dogwood focused on notable authors, but Mrs. Mathews thought a visual component would mean an even better showcase, so she contacted Langland in Granger. The capped Farr Park fountain beckoned to her as a pedestal for what became “Dance of Creation” in 1995.

The seal was recreated in frosting on a sheet cake by Edwardsburg’s Jayla Noland, who started Cakes by Jayla at 13 and by 15 was presenting at SMC’s entrepreneur camp.

Last fall as a dual-enrolled high schooler, she was a student in a business communication class Odenwald taught.

Noland plans to study culinary arts at Grand Rapids Community College, then pursue a hospitality management degree.

Odenwald recalled seeing Mrs. Mathews when he arrived in Dowagiac in 2017 “before I knew who she was” at La Casa De Maria Mexican restaurant.

“She came in to get a to-go order and there was this fashionable aura about her,” Odenwald said. “She’s been very kind to me and Laura since we moved here.”

“They accomplished something which could probably not ever be done again, which was to convince citizens to tax themselves to establish an institution like this.”

“Sixty years ago was an exciting time,” Odenwald added. “People were knocking on doors, going to township meetings, rallying civic clubs and gathering petition signatures at a time in the country that we believed in building up institutions instead of tearing them down.”