Four principles tested by 50 years guiding Southwestern Michigan College’s growth offer graduates building blocks for successful, rewarding lives, Chairman Dr. Fred L. Mathews told SMC’s 47th Commencement May 3 in the Charles O. Zollar gymnasium on the Dowagiac campus.
Never, ever give up in the face of adversity, which Mathews demonstrated in 1964 when a consultant concluded the dream of a Cass County community college was not feasible.
“If a project is worth taking on, it’s worth fighting for,” Mathews said. “This applies to personal, financial or any other challenges. Equally important, surround yourself with people who share this principle.”
Second, aim higher than merely making money.
“It’s admirable to be ambitious and to become financially stable, but prioritize so you spend a portion of your income and time on non-paid community service,” Mathews said. “For instance, trustees serve without pay. I believe each and every trustee, as well as 16 others who served over the past 50 years, look back, as I have, on their lives and the legacy of this college with great satisfaction and pride no amount of money could match. The world’s wealthiest people, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, will tell you their greatest satisfaction was not making money, but using it for public service projects. The greatest goal in life, in my opinion, is leaving your community better than you found it. Don’t worry about changing the whole world. Be concerned about making your little corner better.”
Third, “Always be truthful, honest and honorable,” Mathews said. “No project is worth sacrificing your integrity. As you look back at your life, be able to have pride in how you accomplished your goals.”
Finally, believe in yourself.
“Don’t ever let anyone say you cannot succeed,” said Mathews, who received a standing ovation. “A high-school dropout from northern Michigan became chairman of the board of this college for 50 years. You can do anything.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been half a century,” Mathews reflected. “I was 34 years old. Our seventh and current president, Dr. David Mathews, was 4. Anyone under 55 does not remember when this campus was a cornfield.”
“In the early 1950s, many job opportunities required no more than an eighth-grade education. By the late ’50s a shift was taking place. A high school diploma was beginning to be a requirement for many jobs. By the early 1960s, the post-World War II technology revolution was gaining momentum. It was becoming apparent a high school diploma would not be adequate for better jobs. Hence, the rise of the community college movement,” Mathews said.
“In Cass County, 41 percent of the adult population had an eighth-grade education or less. Cass County struggled economically and educationally. To some of us, this presented a great opportunity to take a giant leap forward. Because of our county’s small population, tax base and other demographic challenges, it was obvious a community college would not be an easy task — but what in life worthwhile is easy?”
Mathews has written a soon-to-be-published book chronicling SMC’s history.
All proceeds go to the college foundation to help students.
A citizens committee of educators, school board members, business professionals and lay people studied the feasibility starting in January 1964.
A Western Michigan University professor was engaged as a consultant.
“We soon realized there were factions, mostly outside Cass County, who did not wish us well. Never in my wildest imagination would I have guessed where opposition would come. Our consultant dropped a bombshell in the winter of 1964. He did an interim report on his own. Fortunately, he sent an advance copy to Father O’Leary, who brought the devastating report to my office. He concluded this college would be hard-pressed to attract an enrollment of 300 students in five years. Needless to say, I was furious. I wrote a blistering rebuttal. It was one of the strongest cases I ever made, but I was very apprehensive. Why would the study committee follow the advice of a 34-year-old optometrist over the advice of a highly respected consultant and university professor?”
But the panel voted unanimously to forge ahead.
“What our consultant lacked was a grasp of our never-give-up attitude,” Mathews said. “Our committee had a dream. He failed to understand we were not going to let a consultant turn that dream into a nightmare without a fight.”
On Aug. 12, 1964, Mathews and two others drove to Lansing for a signing ceremony.
“The hard work of the campaign to get voter approval” on Nov. 3 “was about to begin,” he said. “The citizens of Cass County voted by a nearly 2-1 margin to establish a community college with millage for financial support. I was one of six elected to the founding board from 11 candidates. Two weeks later, the new Board of Trustees met and elected me chairman and Barbara Wood Cook secretary. Barb and I are the sole surviving founders.
“We proved them wrong. The first-year class, 1966-67, we had a fulltime equivalent enrollment of 430 students, with a head count of 948. This college has had a positive influence on the educational, economic and social fabric of this whole area. I shudder to imagine what it would be like if Southwestern Michigan College had not been founded. That 41 percent of adults with an eighth-grade education is 2.4 percent today. Few outside this community look down their noses at Cass County as many did in 1964. Instead, they look in admiration at the transformation.”
Four students — Hannah Davis of Coloma, Theresa Lingle of South Bend, Ind., Mary Kate Stewart of Dowagiac and building trades instructor Larry Wilson of Niles — graduated with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages.
Two former presidents attended, Russell “M” Owen and David C. Briegel.
SMC’s largest graduating class included Santa Claus. Gary Barnes of Niles, shown with 50-year Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Fred L. Mathews and his wife, Thelda, earned an associate degree through the School of Business and Advanced Technology.