Dawson, Matel “Mat” Jr. 1921–2002
Matel “Mat” Dawson Jr. 1921–2002
With little more than a ninth grade education and a commitment to hard work, forklift operator Matel “Mat” Dawson Jr. managed to amass a small fortune by working 80-plus hours a week and investing heavily in the stock of his employer, the Ford Motor Company. He maintained his grueling work schedule into his eighties, well past retirement age. Meanwhile he lived simply in a dingy one-bedroom apartment in a rough suburb of Detroit, Michigan, and drove a used car without hubcaps—thanks to neighborhood thieves. He once explained to Jet why his frugal lifestyle and hard work was necessary. “I need money to make me happy. It makes me happy to give money away. It gives me a good feeling.” In 1991 Dawson had begun donating heavily to educational programs and universities and by the time of his death in 2002, had given away over one million dollars. Having had to drop out of school at a young age in order to work, Dawson was committed to seeing that no one be denied an education because of lack of money. “I advise kids to get a good education,” he told Ebony. “I have more than what I need, and I’m sharing it with them.” He funded two scholarship programs and donated extensively to the United Negro College Fund. His generosity brought him fame and recognition, yet with a modesty that was one of his hallmarks, he once told the Detroit Free Press, “I’m not trying to impress anybody. I just want to help people, leave a legacy and be remembered.”
The fifth of Matel and Bessie Dawson’s seven children, Dawson was born on January 3, 1921, in Shreveport, Louisiana. Though they struggled with Depression-era poverty and Southern racial segregation, the Dawsons imparted strong values to their children. “I watched my father work hard doing all kinds of jobs. He started working [at Tri-State Sanitarium] as a dishwasher and worked up to head cook,” Dawson told Ebony. Mrs. Dawson supplemented her husband’s pay by taking in laundry. However, her biggest contribution to the family’s finances was her thriftiness. “My mother was a saving woman,” Dawson told the Detroit Free Press. “Even if it was just two or three dollars, my mother would say ‘save.’” The Dawsons also encouraged charity. Dawson recalled to Time that his mother implored her children to always “give something back” no matter how little. Dawson attended West Shreveport Elementary School and went
At a Glance…
Born on January 3, 1921 in Shreveport, LA; died on November 2, 2002, in Highland Park, Ml; son of Bessie and Matel Dawson Sr.; married Herneta Davis, February 21, 1942 (divorced, 1976); children: JoAnn Dawson Agee. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Assembly Plant, Dearborn, MI, rigger and forklift operator, 1941-02.
Memberships: United Automobile Worker’s Union, Local 600, 1942-02.
Awards: Michiganian of the Year, 1991; Honorary Grand Marshal, 74th Annual Highland Park Parade, 1991; United Negro College Fund, Distinguished Support Award, 1991; Honorary Degree, Highland Park Community College, 1991; National Society of Fund Raising Executives, Outstanding Philanthropy Award, 1995; D.Humane Letters, Wayne State University, 1996; inductee, Detroit International Heritage Hall of Fame, 1996; Community Service Award, National Urban League, 1996; United Automobile Worker’s Ford Conference, Founder’s Award, 1997; Trumpet Award, 1999; D.H.L., Louisiana State University, Shreveport, 2000.
on to Central High School also in Shreveport. However, after the ninth grade he had to drop out to earn money. “I always wanted to better myself,” he told Time, “but I came up in the Depression. I had to work.”
At the age of 19, Dawson left Louisiana for Detroit, Michigan, and soon found work at a Ford manufacturing plant. He began in 1940 as a general laborer making a little over a dollar an hour. On February 21, 1942, Dawson married Herneta Alberta Davis and soon had a daughter, Jo Ann. Dawson’s propensity for hard work and frugality allowed him to pay off the 30-year mortgage on the family’s three-bedroom house in six years. He also was able to buy two new Lincoln Continentals for himself and his wife. When the couple divorced in 1976, Dawson let his wife take the house and the cars. He eventually settled in a spare one-bedroom apartment in the gritty neighborhood of Highland Park, Michigan.
Dawson explained his financial success to Ebony as due to “the grace of Almighty God and the Ford Motor Company.” In 1956 he began buying shares of Ford through the employee stock purchase plan and over the course of his 40-odd years of investing enjoyed a higher than average return on his investments. Meanwhile, he moved up the ranks at Ford eventually becoming a skilled rigger and forklift operator. The position was physically demanding, often requiring Dawson to lift several tons over the course of a shift. Nonetheless, he relished the hard work, regularly staying on the job up to twelve hours a day and shunning vacations. He even volunteered to work holidays and weekends. “He’s an excellent worker,” his supervisor told Ebony in 1996. “Although his shift doesn’t start until 7 a.m., he’s usually here by 5 a.m.” That was at a time when Dawson was well into his seventies. By that time he was making roughly $24 an hour. However, his overtime work helped him pull in nearly $100,000 annually. Dawson firmly believed that others could achieve the financial success he had. “The trouble with a lot of people is they’re looking for something for nothing—and it doesn’t exist,” he told Ebony. “You have to get out there and work for it. I don’t play no lotto, no numbers and all that stuff; that ain’t my cup of tea.”
Dawson’s charity had begun long before his multi-zeroed checks caught the attention of the media. “With my very first pay, I bought two of my brothers a suit of clothes and sent it to them,” he recalled to Ebony. He also helped other family members with everything from college tuition to home down payments. A spiritual man, Dawson generously supported People’s Community Church in Detroit, where he was a member, as well as several churches back in Shreveport. By the early 1990s his combined church donations were estimated at over $100,000. Dawson made his first major gift in 1991 during a telethon for the Michigan branch of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). “He walked into the office in overalls and rubber fisherman’s boots up to his knees,” the UNCF director recalled to Ebony. “In his hand he held a paper bag, and in that bag was a check for $30,000.” It was the largest individual gift ever made to the Michigan telethon and it left UNCF staff speechless and the local media intrigued. Soon the story of the blue-collar philanthropist was making headlines. However, Dawson remained modest, driving his 1985 Ford Escort to the factory before dawn each morning as he had done nearly all his life. “The first time I realized what he was doing, I heard it on the radio,” Dawson’s supervisor told Ebony.
In 1994 Dawson made about $60,000 at Ford; that same year he made a second gift to Michigan’s UNCF of $50,000. By 1996 his gifts to the non-profit fund had reached $200,000. Dawson was drawn to the UNCF by his belief in higher education. “Today’s youth are our future and education is the best investment that I can make,” he explained to Jet. He later elaborated in an interview with Time, “If I was to do anything with my money other than help some of these kids begging to go to school, I’d be throwing it away.” In 1996 Dawson approached Detroit’s Wayne State University with the idea of endowing a scholarship in his name. His first gift to the school was $200,000 and it provided several four-year, full-tuition scholarships not restricted by race, religion, or sex. Dawson chose Wayne State University because it was near his home. “This way I can meet the kids, I can talk with them, I can follow their progress, and I know who they are,” he told Ebony.
His involvement was appreciated by the students. One scholarship recipient, a single mother juggling children and college, confessed that she was stunned when she found out Dawson was a blue-collar worker. “I thought he would be a money machine who wouldn’t miss the money,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Then I found out where he worked, what he did. It motivated me to do better.” Dawson also donated $30,000 to a library on Wayne State’s campus and in 1999 contributed another $200,000 to the Mat Dawson Jr. Scholarship Fund. The university expressed its gratitude by awarding Dawson an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Photos of the commencement show Dawson, round at the belly from his confessed love of barbecued ribs and fried fish, with a mile-wide smile across his face. For a man forced out of high school, it was a proud moment. “I’m sure if my parents were alive they’d be proud of me because they also supported higher education,” he told Ebony.
Despite having lived in Michigan for half a century, Dawson never forgot his roots in Shreveport and in 1997 he phoned the tiny Shreveport branch of Louisiana State University (LSUS). According to Time the official who took the call “[assumed] that because Dawson was an autoworker, the most he could give was a couple of hundred dollars.” Dawson, long used to breaking assumptions about his giving ability, offered to establish the Matel & Bessie Hall Dawson Endowed Scholarship Fund with an initial gift of $100,000. He named the fund for his parents because as he explained to Jet, “I’m on a mission fulfilling my parents’ dreams. They wanted us to be something in life and stand for something.” Dawson arrived at the check presentation in one of his signature Burberry suits—his only personal indulgence—and was joined by his niece whom he had helped put through college and who was then the principal at Dawson’s old elementary school. Dawson’s gift remains the largest individual donation in the school’s history. “I want to leave a legacy,” he told Jet of his gift. “I’m giving to LSUS because I’m proud to be from Shreveport. I want to give something back to society. And education is the key to success.” The university repaid Dawson’s generosity with his second honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and a plaque in the school library. However, the most important returns Dawson enjoyed on his investment were the 20 students who had graduated by 2002 thanks to the Matel & Bessie Dawson fund.
The story of the fork-lift philanthropist was irresistible to journalists. He appeared on several programs including Oprah, NBC’s Nightly News, National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, and CNN. The printed press devoted pages to his story, and he became a minor celebrity in Detroit. With the media recognition came enough honors and awards to fill a wall at his daughter Jo Ann’s home. He was invited by former President Bill Clinton to a White House reception and in an oft-repeated anecdote Dawson replied jokingly to the invitation by asking if the White House would pay him for his lost wages. The answer was no, but Dawson went anyway. Dawson was awarded the Annual Community Service Award by the National Urban League and inducted into the Detroit International Heritage Hall of Fame. In 1999 he received a prestigious Trumpet Award from Turner Broadcasting. The award honors African Americans who have contributed significantly to society. Past winners include Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Thurgood Marshall. Of these awards Dawson was typically modest, telling Time, “I just want to be remembered as an individual who tried to do some good.” However, one honor he gladly retold with glee was his invitation to join other important African-American philanthropists in New York where he met Bill Cosby. Dawson recalled to People Weekly, “He put his arms around me and said, ‘Where’d you get all that money from?’ I said, ‘I’m tryin’ to catch up with you!’”
After 60 years Dawson finally retired from Ford in February of 2002. By that time he had given away over $1.25 million. He had also pledged his life savings to the United Negro College Fund upon his death. Sadly that death came soon after his retirement. On November 2, 2002, Dawson succumbed to a heart attack alone in his Highland Park apartment. He was 81. His death saddened and shocked friends and family. The pastor of People’s Community Church summed up the general feeling when he told the Detroit Free Press, “We were all caught off guard. We didn’t expect it. We expected Mr. Dawson to go on forever.” The year before his death Dawson had ordered a custom-made crypt from India with the inscription “Mat Dawson Jr.—Gone but Not Forgotten.” The many students he helped and the thousands of people he inspired ensure that Dawson will indeed not be forgotten. As a board member of Wayne State University told the Detroit Free Press, “He planted a seed with his generosity and a harvest for all of us.”
Detroit Free Press, November 5, 2002.
Ebony, October 1996, p. 62.
Jet, January 31, 1994, p. 23; April 21, 1997, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2002, p. B14.
New York Times, November 13, 2002, p. B10.
People Weekly, June 7, 1999, p. 103.
Time, July 19, 1999, p. 6.
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