Queen's University

More than “just lucky”

John Matheson, BA'40, LLD'84, who died on Dec. 27, 2013, was one of the University's most illustrious and accomplished graduates. In 1998, when he received the the Alumni Achievement Award from the Queen's University Alumni Association, he was profiled in the Winter 1999 edition of the Alumni Review. As a tribute to John, here is a reprint of that archived article . . .

Gananoque, ON

 John Matheson is sitting in his easy chair, his back to the postcard-perfect view from the condominium he and his wife Edith moved into recently after vacating their home at Rideau Ferry, an hour's drive to the north.

Matheson isn’t much interested today in looking at the scenic splendours of the 1000 Islands. It’s not just because the nearby marina is closed and the sun-dappled St. Lawrence River is empty of boats on a chill late-autumn afternoon. No, it’s because Matheson is musing about the latest in a long list of accolades he has received. The Alumni Achievement Award is the highest honour the Queen’s University Alumni Association (QUAA) can bestow on one of its own.

QAR cover -- 1999The cover of the Winter 1999 issue of the QAR

Matheson received the Award from the hands of QUAA President Elizabeth (Schram) Craigg, Arts’91, at a mid-November ceremony held in Ottawa, in the Parliament Hill chambers of Matheson’s old friend, House Speaker Gilbert Parent.

In addition to the Speaker, among the special guests on hand for the occasion were Matheson’s wife Edith, a parcel of the Matheson family; several past winners of the Award; Principal Bill Leggett; George Hood, Artsci’78, MPA’91, the newly appointed Vice Principal (Advancement); and Kingston and the islands MP (and Matheson cousin) Peter Milliken, Arts’68.

Matheson says he was “deeply moved” to receive the honour. “I wasn’t a great soldier. I wasn’t a great lawyer, nor was I a great Judge or Member of Parliament. I’ve been extremely lucky in my life and terribly spoiled,” he insists.

“I expect there are people who’d disagree with that assessment,” says his visitor from Queen’s.

Reading the letters and documents that Matheson boosters in the Ottawa Over-50 group submitted in support of his nomination, you can see that’s clearly the case. Matheson would have been a deserving recipient of the Achievement Award on his record of public service alone. His CV is lengthy and outlines the career of a man whose contributions to his community, to his beloved alma mater, and to Canada are second to none. Yet even those busy pages only begin to tell the story of a life that has been as remarkable as it has been distinguished.

True, as he notes, he’s been a soldier (one decorated for bravery), lawyer, MP, and a judge. But he’s also a published poet, a sportsman, the father of maple-leaf Canada’s flag, one of this country’s leading heraldry experts, a dyed-in-the-wool (actually dyed in the Queen’s tartan, which Matheson designed in 1988) Canadian nationalist, a noted amateur historian, a Mason, and a tireless volunteer on behalf of a host of worthwhile causes. And that’s saying nothing of his involvement with Queen’s.

During his student days in the late 1930s, the youthful Matheson found that at 5’6” and 135 pounds he was too small to play football, so he boxed and wrestled. He also headed the Arts Society and was heavily involved in campus life. Matheson’s dedication and enthusiasm were such that he was one of the inaugural winners of the Tricolour Society Award, when it was established in 1940. As you may have guessed, Matheson’s devotion to Queen’s didn’t end with his graduation.

Despite horrible war wounds, which left him with a permanent limp and a quarter-sized hole in his skull, Matheson’s zest for life and his Tricolour involvement never wavered. He subsequently served as honorary president of the Alma Mater Society, sat as a member of the Board of Trustees for two decades, helped to design the University’s official flag (working with Padre A.M Laverty, LLD’91; Jim Courtright, Arts’41, and Agnes Benidickson, Arts’41, LLD’79), chaired the Theological College’s board of management for five years, won the 1981 Montreal Medal, and earned both the Distinguished Service Award in 1977 and an honorary degree in 1984 – to go along with one from RMC, the Agnes Benidickson award in 1992, a law degree from Osgoode Hall (1948), an MA from Mount Allison, an LLM from Western, and . . . well, the list of Matheson's accomplishments goes on for several more pages. In fine print.

A lasting legacy

However, most Canadians remember him for are his work during the seven years (1961-68) that he sat in the House of Commons as the Liberal MP for the eastern Ontario riding of Leeds. In 1964, Matheson’s longtime friend and mentor Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, LLD’65, asked him to guide the Commons committee that was choosing the design for a new Canadian flag. When a retired naval officer came up with a design that featured three red maple leafs on a white background, with blue bard at each end – representing the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans – Person was sold. Not Matheson.

Matheson with the GGMatheson with Governor General -- and fellow Queen's alumnus-- David Johnston, Law'66 (left), at the 2012 QUAA awards gala.

He protested, arguing (among other things) that by Royal proclamation, Canada’s official colours were red and white, not red, white, and blue. Besides that, he pointed out, when viewed from afar, the blue bars would blend in with the sky.

After much intrigue and controversy, Matheson’s views prevailed. In early 1965, Parliament approved the new Matheson-backed red-and-white maple leaf flag. That flag now waves proudly from atop flag poles and public buildings from sea to sea. Lester Pearson would later tell a reporter for Time magazine that John Matheson was “the man who had more to do with [the flag] than any other.” He was correct about that.

Two years later, during Centennial celebrations, Pearson acted on another Matheson recommendation when he established the Order of Canada, an honour that Matheson himself was delighted to receive. But Matheson wasn’t done putting his knowledge of heraldry to work on behalf of his country. His influence was felt when the federal government established the Canadian armorial authority under Government House.

So you can see, it’s as the saying says, “You’ve got to be good to be lucky.” If John Matheson has been lucky, there have been lots of reasons. However, even his staunchest boosters have to concede that there’s been an element of good fortune involved in Matheson’s life. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a near-miracle that he lived to accomplish what he has.

Matheson in 2008In recent years, John Matheson was confined to a motorized wheelchair, buit that did not stop him from getting around downtown Kingston or attending civic events. (Alumni Review file photo)

Matheson, who comes from hardy Glengarry United Empire Loyalist sock, was born Nov. 14, 1917, in Arundel, QC. He grew up in Quebec City and was destined to attend Queen’s (along with his three sisters: Dorothy Parnell, Arts’40; Catherine Carty, Arts’42; and, Margaret Slemon, Arts’46). To do otherwise would have been heresy in the family. Both of Matheson’s parents – father A. Dawson Matheson, MA 1912, BA 1916, and his mother Gertrude McCuaig, BA 1915, were proud Queen’s grads.

Queen’s was a very different school when Matheson arrived on campus in the fall of 1936. Canada was in the grip of the Great Depression, and little Queen’s (student population a cozy 1,800) was considered “the poor person’s school” compared to its big-city cousins U of T and McGill. Matheson put himself through four years of an Arts degree program by toiling during the summer months at logging and construction camps in the Quebec bush and by carefully counting his pennies the rest of the time.

When war broke out in September 1939, Matheson commenced military training and was commissioned with the First Field Brigade, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

Matheson was keen to become a commando. When this proved impossible (because of his diminutive size), he became a forward observation officer. In December 1943, while serving at the front in Italy. Matheson was badly wounded. A 105 mm German shell burst overhead as he was fording the Moro River prior to the Battle of Ortona. Two of Matheson’s comrades were killed outright; he and several other men were horribly wounded. Matheson was hit by shrapnel fragments, which pierced his brain. He would have died where he’d fallen had it not been for Chaplain Waldo Smith, a fellow Queen’sman, who hauled Matheson’s broken body to a field hospital. “I was lucky,” Matheson says. In that regard, there’s no denying that he’s correct.

Doctors said he'd never walk again

The officer who replaced Matheson in his unit, a good friend named Bob Donald, was killed by a mortar shell two days later. Matheson is convinced that if he has still been in the field, it would have been him who died. “Bob died without ever seeing a medal, without receiving any kind of honour,” says Matheson. “He died in the prime of his life. Things are so unfair sometimes.”

Matheson was shipped home with a head full of shrapnel bits and a neurosurgeon’s prediction that his patient would never walk again.

Despite that dire outlook, things turned out well for Matheson. It was because of his war wounds that in July 1944 he met his future wife, Edith Bickley, who was working at St. Anne de Bellevue Hospital near Montreal. Matheson was sent here either to die or convalesce. Edith took one look at the patient’s X-rays and knew that this soldier, who had survived such grievous battlefield wounds, must be someone special. It was love at first sight.
Matheson was wheelchair bound for months, but by the time he and Edith married in August 1945, he had forced himself to learn to walk again. The couple was wed by John’s father in a ceremony in the Queen’s chapel. Where else?

Fifty-three years and six children later, Edith and John and still together and still very much in love. And it’s as clear as the blue skies outside the window of their Gananoque home that Edith has been the glue that has held John Matheson’s life together during an eventful and often hectic career.

John Matheson was an honorary graduate of RMC and his photo appreared on the cover of Fall 2011 issue of the College's alumni magazine. 

Today, he’s a distinguished-looking 81 years of age. His limp is even more pronounced than ever, yet time and waning health have done nothing to dim the twinkle in his eyes of the gusto with which he attacks life. He continues to seek out and master new challenges.

Matheson went to Bosnia in 1996 as a Canadian electoral monitor on an international commission enforcing the Dayton Peace Accord. Last summer, he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he made a parachute jump (tethered to an instructor), and he was delighted when his 1984 book of verse, Sinews of the Heart, reprinted by his old friend Dr. Bruce Cronk, Meds’46 (himself a past winner of the QUAA alumni Achievement Award, in 1992) and the Bridge Street United Church Foundation of Belleville, ON. Proceeds from sales of the book are going to support the good works of the Christian Medical Foundation of Canada.

The 135-page book is filled with poems Matheson wrote over the course of several decades and deal with everything from family matters and his wartime experiences to national unity. The latter subject, above all others, stirs Matheson’s passions. He’s a fervent nationalist who believes that French and English must and will remain together and will continue to live in harmony. “Canada would not be Canada without Quebec,” he says.
Finally turning his attention to the scenic beauties outside his living room window, Matheson strokes his chin and smiles as he nods knowingly. “Yes, we’re lucky,” he continues to insist. “And I’ve been lucky, very lucky. Spoiled, too.”

There are many people who would argue with those notions . . . and they’d be correct to do so.




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