Helen Matson isn’t sure why she’s so committed to capturing the stories of military service veterans.
Maybe it’s because she learns best by seeing and listening to the veterans instead of just reading dates in a history book.
Or, perhaps it’s because she never really knew the stories of her father and his service in World War II. Those stories died with him more than a half century ago and when Matson’s mother died two decades ago.
But, it’s most likely because Matson, 63, who retired from a 16-year career with the city of Independence at the end of May, just genuinely loves people.
A volunteer at heart
Matson grew up in Sugar Creek. In grade school she aspired to join the Ice Capades because of her love of skating all winter.
She graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 1967 and went to work in keypunching. She married, had two children and became a stay-at-home mother.
This is when she learned about volunteering and the pleasure it gave her to participate in anything her children’s schools had to offer. She served as PTA president, baked cakes, was a teacher’s aide and managed school carnivals.
Matson also volunteered in the school library and helped with the school newspaper.
“Every day of the week was something to do in the school,” she says, “and I dearly loved being around the kids.”
Eventually, Matson became single again and moved away from Eastern Jackson County several times, “but I always came back,” she says.
Then, at age 40, Matson was looking for opportunities to further her education.
“I never got my college degree, but I have a lot of classes behind me,” she says, laughing. “I took what I was interested in.”
So, she attended the 200-hour Police Academy in Joplin, Mo.
“I loved it. It was really educational. I loved every bit of it,” Matson says.
Once she had earned her certificate, she volunteered as a dispatcher with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office but learned it wasn’t her dream job.
The experience encouraged her to pursue court reporting classes for 18 months, but Matson says she had problems simultaneously picking up her speed and accuracy in typing.
Each step along her adult life, Matson says, she’s gleaned experiences and knowledge about what interested her.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could about what I came close to,” she said.
Twenty years ago, she was back in Independence, working in business retention with the Independence Council for Economic Development.
Four years later, a position opened up in Mayor Ron Stewart’s office. Matson applied – a process that included writing a long essay on tax increment financing – and got it.
When she started with the city, the Truman Memorial Building hadn’t yet been renovated. Stewart formed a task force in 1997 to look at renovating the history-filled building, and it reopened five years later after $6 million in renovations.
In 2004, Matson received a new assignment in the Truman Memorial Building: volunteer services coordinator, under the Parks and Recreation Department.
On Nov. 9, 2006, the building opened its Veterans Hall, dedicated to Independence residents who have given military service.
And, in 2009, Matson did her first Veteran Salute interview with World War II Navy veteran Clyde Michael, one of nearly 250 veteran interviews she completed as volunteer coordinator.
Matson serves on the board of the Heartland Honor Flight, and she recently took her sixth Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with World War II veterans.
Matson possesses a passion and a love for community and people, especially with the veterans salute program, says Eric Urfer, director of Independence Parks and Recreation, and she can confidently say she made a positive difference in her community.
In a short time, Matson is able to make the veterans feel comfortable and is able to connect with them, Urfer says, “making you feel as if you’ve known her forever.”
“She took that from literally a concept to one of the finest veterans programs in the nation,” Urfer says. “We often get calls, asking us how we got from Point A to Point B, and up until this point, I simply gave them Helen’s number. Really, she is the mastermind behind the entire program and everything it’s become.”
Some of the veterans have commented that Matson reminded them of iconic “nose art” images of women painted on the sides of military aircraft, Urfer says. Matson represented the real-life version of what they had fought for decades ago.
As volunteer coordinator, Matson organized a group to go out and clean parks, “but she would be right there next to them, doing the work herself,” Urfer says. “And, if she couldn’t get enough volunteers, she’d be out there doing it herself anyway.”
Especially, Urfer adds, when it came to graffiti. Blue Springs High School graduate and graphic artist Jeff Barge created mock graffiti posters for Matson’s May 24 retirement ceremony with messages like “Vandals rejoice! (Helen is retiring.)” and “Helen was here! For a good time call: 325-7860.” “Yes, I kept painting clothes in my office, along with a 5-gallon bucket of paint,” Matson says of her love for cleaning graffiti off of city-owned facilities.
“Really, when anybody looks back on their career and they can say that through their work they improved the quality of life in their town, it’s certainly something to be proud of,” Urfer says, “and I would agree that Helen has done just that.”
Matson’s father, a World War II submariner, died when she was 10 years old. She has few, if any, surviving memories of him, saying she is unsure of where they went. His uniform is on display in Veterans Hall at the Truman Memorial Building.
“I have pictures,” Matson says, “and that’s about it.”
At first, Matson says she doesn’t think her father was the inspiration for committing so deeply to the Veterans Salute program. Her inspiration might have come from her uncle, John Peterman, who was a buddy of Matson’s father aboard the USS Flying Fish and later married her mother’s sister.
“I honestly don’t know what my inspiration was, but I know once I started the videotaping, I was hooked,” Matson says. “I was hooked on the stories, the living history. I became so interested from the very first one I videotaped all through – I became so interested in their lives.
“I don’t know what really hooked me on it, but the videotaping just locked me in. It sealed the deal.”
The man whose story she first told – Clyde Michael – is still living, but others have since died. So, what keeps Matson from getting attached to them?
There’s no way of avoiding that, she says, especially as the men and women share experiences that have remained locked away for years because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“You don’t,” Matson says, her eyes welling with tears. “You’re attached to every single person who walks in this door. You cannot not be attached. When you hear their story, it’s just a piece that goes into your heart – it’s always there.
“It is breaking my heart every time I lose one. When I say ‘I lose one,’ their family loses them, and every time I lose someone I’ve interviewed, it breaks my heart.”
When her mother died 23 years ago, Matson says she was at a point in her life where she wasn’t interested yet in asking about her own father and in learning more.
“It’s very painful,” Matson says. “It’s very sad to have lost what stories he could have shared. Maybe that has locked me into the videotaping, seeing that I don’t have anything of my father.”
She sees the importance of future generations “knowing what Grandpa did in the war.”
“I don’t have that for my father,” Matson says. “A lot of the men don’t see that until maybe they’re dragged in here by their wives or daughters or sons or somebody – they think if they told one person the stories, those stories will live on, but they won’t. If my mother heard any stories, they’re gone, because my mother is gone.”
‘God had other plans for me’
Following the end of her second marriage, Matson was on her own for 20 years. She told herself she was finished with being in love.
Then, on a blind date, she met Larry White, a veteran of the Vietnam War. After three years of dating, the couple married on April 7. Now that she’s retired from the city, she’ll be known as Helen Matson White.
“God had other plans for me,” Matson says, laughing, “and my other plan was Larry.”
White, who served the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1968, says he was attracted to Matson’s energy, her love for her job, her compassion for the way her city looks – and, especially, her love for the veterans.
“She’s just very passionate about all of the military servicemen, whether they’re over in Afghanistan now or served in World War II – she loves them all,” White says. “That’s one of the great things I liked about her. Her work ethic and her feelings toward fellow human beings and the smile and happiness that she always exhumes – people pick up on that.”
As a volunteer, Matson will continue capturing and sharing the stories of veterans. She also would like to volunteer at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, including an expansion of the veterans videotaping program into the hospital.
She now volunteers with the Independence Police Department’s V.I.P.S. program and with Kansas City Hospice, as well as volunteering at her granddaughter’s school and in the library at Académie Lafayette.
In late 2010, Matson had open heart surgery, and that experience, she says, opened her eyes to where she was in life and what she wants to accomplish “before age and health tell you that you can’t.”
“I don’t know where I’m going,” Matson says of her life post-retirement, “but I know I’m not going to stay home. I’m open to anything, wherever it takes me.
“If I could give advice, it might be to tell people not to close your eyes or heart to anything, because you never know where something that has little significance at the time might mean a lot later in life, as you get older. Don’t close your mind to anything. … The things that I’ve learned and the things that I’ve done, really, I couldn’t say that I went looking for them. They just happened, and I was open to it. I hope always make the best out of it.”