Matt was born in Columbus, Georgia. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbus College and his Masters in Social Work at the University of Georgia. Matt's caring heart was a perfect fit for a social work career. He was passionate about his job and, more importantly, his clients. His commitment to and compassion for his clients helped them live their lives to the best of their ability, and both patients and professionals stated he was the best social worker they had ever known.
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Matt began his career with Child Protective Services with the State of Georgia. He was working at Grady Hospital in Atlanta when the AIDS epidemic began, and he quickly became deeply involved in this growing issue. In 1985 he was named Social Work Coordinator for the AIDS Clinic at Grady. The following year he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to become the Director of AIDS Education and Social Work Services with the Tennessee Department of Health. In that capacity he helped alleviate concerns about transmission of the virus, and he was a frequent media spokesperson who described the facts about AIDS in a caring and understandable manner. His communication skills were particularly tested during the early days of the HIV epidemic. In 1987, he presented the facts about AIDS before a group of highly concerned and emotional parents in a rural community where an HIV-positive child was being admitted to school. Although he became the lightning rod for the parents' fears, he professionally attempted to bridge the gap between the myths and realities of HIV transmission. This was just the first of countless times that Matt spoke up as the voice for reason and understanding when dealing with HIV.
Matt's work also had a demonstrable impact at the national level. He was instrumental in supporting development of "Nutrition and HIV: Your Choices Make a Difference," which was published by AIDS organizations around the country. In the preface, the author thanked Matt for his "invaluable insight and enthusiasm for the project." He also was the author of the nationally distributed "AIDS in the American Workplace: A Guide to Policy Development and Employee Education," and he authored multiple articles in trade publications for medical professionals, educators, and funeral home directors. For this and other activities, Matt received awards in Tennessee and special recognition in a citation from the U.S. Secretary of Health.
In 1997 Matt fulfilled a dream and moved from the hot and humid South to Alaska, to thrive in the snow and cold. For the majority of his time in Alaska, Matt worked with a home-based hospice program in Wasilla. During those years, friends noted that it was rare to attend a public event with Matt without being stopped by people who wanted to give him a warm hug and tell him how much he had meant to their families during the difficult time of losing a loved one. Many stated they didn't know how they would have managed without him. Matt also counseled domestic violence offenders among incarcerated inmates and released convicts at a local women's resource center. More recently, he had channeled his social work skills into helping patients undergoing treatment at a dialysis center in Anchorage.
Apart from his patients, Matt's other great love was being an avid collector of art. He described himself as a "self-professed art collector who does not have the ability to draw a straight line with a ruler." But he was a passionate lover of all types of art, and the more colorful, the better. Matt once wrote that he loved any day when he could be surprised at the new and wonderful interpretations of artists who helped open his mind and imagination and allowed ideas to flow in ways that otherwise would not have been possible. Most importantly, Matt stated that the world would be a wonderful place if we could accept and embrace diversity and uniqueness in others as much as we do in our art.
Although he did not use paint and canvas, Matt was an artist in many ways. He was not a sculptor in clay, but he molded and shaped the opinions of many who met him. Although his direct manner of speaking could be off-putting to some, others stated they appreciated his upfront and clear expression of his positions. And he was truly an artist with words. Among other topics, his poetry included beautiful expressions about the tragedies of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. One of his poems included a section that resonates with our thoughts today:
:friendships and love affairs:
once so vital to the body:now:.
simple treasures of the heart.
During his last months, many persons who knew Matt received the gift of a book in which he had highlighted a quote from Dr. Seuss - "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." Thank you, Matt, for this last bit of sage advice. We will indeed smile:because it happened.
Matt was preceded in death by his parents, Paul and Anne Nelson, and his beloved grandmother, Thelma Hearn, all of Columbus, Georgia. He is survived by his sister, Paula Brown, and niece, Kristine Brown, of Smiths, Alabama; cousin, Dale Cook and husband, Bryan, of West Point, Georgia; and dear friends Babetta Daddino, Goleto, California; Rick and Debbie Mathena, Statesville, North Carolina; Doris Spain, Nashville,
Tennessee; Tom and Jackie Titus, Columbus, Georgia; and Charles and Laurel Wood, Athens, Tennessee. For their loving friendship in Alaska, Matt wished to thank Phillip and Loretta Champagne, Gail Henderson, Amanda Velazquez, and Lucy Torrend.
No memorial service is planned. Rather, persons wishing to honor Matt in the manner that would be most meaningful to him may make a donation in his memory to a local hospice organization.
Published in Alaska Dispatch News from Aug. 21 to Aug. 22, 2013