Thomas Hill Matthews, 86, passed away Tuesday June 3rd. He was born on the Nash side of Rocky Mount at his maternal grandparents' home on Labor Day in 1927, September 5th, to Edd Rubin Matthews and Corinna Parrish Matthews. In 1928 the family moved to Roanoke Rapids where his father owned and operated Matthews Grocery. His only sibling, brother Robert Allison Matthews, was born that year in Roanoke Rapids Hospital but only lived a few days.
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The family moved to Washington D.C. and Richmond, VA. during the depression where his father worked in chain grocery stores. It was 1937 when the family moved back to Rocky Mount and Edd managed Matthews Grocery on Main Street. In 1945 Tom graduated from Rocky Mount Senior High where he played football for three years.
He excelled as a lineman and linebacker for the Blackbirds, was team captain, voted Most Valuable Player his senior year, JC's Best Blocker, All State, All Eastern Conference and he had the distinction of playing in the Shrine Bowl. Tom was recruited by many major colleges but chose to attend Duke University, then a football powerhouse, on a full scholarship. He stayed there for three semesters before a knee injury and operation at Duke Hospital ended his football career.
In 1946 he joined the Army Air Corps, first serving in San Antonio, Texas and later Denver, Colorado. Then orders came in to send him to the South Pacific but those orders were changed so that he could play baseball, a sport in which he still excelled, at Langley Field, VA. Another knee injury in 1947 led to his medical discharge from the Air Force at Walter Reed Hospital.
Tom enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill's business school in 1948 and entered law school there in 1949. His last year of business administration counted as his first year of law school and in 1950 Tom earned his Bachelor's degree. That summer he travelled to Europe with three friends and toured the continent on a three month adventure. In 1952 he received his Juris Doctorate (law degree) from UNC and began working for Gulf Oil on the recommendation of his former coach, Eddie Cameron of Duke.
His next job was with DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware where he worked for a year. In 1953 he returned to Washington, DC to study and work in tax law. Tom wanted to be closer to his beloved family in Rocky Mount so in 1954 he took a position in the law office of Franklin Dupree in Raleigh. He finally returned to his hometown in 1955 to become the Assistant Clerk of Nash County Superior Court. In 1956 he opened a law office in Rocky Mount. Later that year, as his career rapidly advanced, Tom Matthews was elected Solicitor (District Attorney) of the Rocky Mount Recorder's Court.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment came in 1960, when Tom married Willa Joan "Billie Jo" Works. They were married 54 years at the time of his passing. In 1968 Tom was elected District Court Judge for Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson Counties. He was very well known in that role until his retirement in 1980, being reelected many times and earning him the long standing title of Judge Matthews. He had the honor of being president of the NC District Judges Association from 1970-71. In 1980 he also was inducted into the distinguished Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Governor Jim Hunt.
Tom was as active in retirement as he had been in his honorable career. He covered many significant events as a reporter (with his daughter along taking pictures), including the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York and many college football and basketball games. In 1982 he was elected to the NC House of Representatives from the Eighth District.
He was a long standing member of the Kiwanis Club in Rocky Mount and served as editor of their newsletter from 1981-82. In 2000, Tom received a Certificate of Continuous Membership with the American Legion, continuing that membership throughout his life. Seaboard Coast Line Railroad made him an honorary locomotive engineer in 1978. Tom was also honored in 1990 when he was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel.
He had a mind for business, having been involved over the years in many ventures including swimming pool construction and cosmetic distribution. He was always thinking of potential new ideas for businesses to start with his daughter Tammy, family friend Leroy Phillips and others. At one point earlier in his life, Tom and his family even had a short stint in the barbecue business.
His wife Billie Jo called Tom her perpetual student. He furthered his knowledge by taking such courses as upholstery, electronics, Russian and deep sea diving among many others. At the age of 70, in 1997, he became an ambulance certified Emergency Medical Technician and also served on the board of directors of Stony Creek Medical Squad. In the year 2000 he studied banking and began serving on the board of directors of First Carolina State Bank.
Tom had a lifelong love of playing the guitar but musically he is perhaps best known for his skill as a harmonica player. He often carried a harmonica in his coat pocket and loved to play it on any occasion, especially birthdays. In 2001 he began playing with a string band, entertaining at area retirement homes. Tom loved people and playing with the band gave him more opportunities to put smiles on people's faces.
Tom leaves behind his cherished wife Billie Jo and his beloved daughter, Tammy Ann, who the couple adopted in 1964. They were always a very close knit, loving family and he included Tammy's boyfriend Mitchell Vincent as a close family member. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Hurlbutt now lives in Ashville, NC with her husband Dan. Tom really loved his animals and was very close to several family pets over the course of his life. He was preceded in death last year by his grand dog Jumper and survived by Tammy's dogs Buddy and Nightingale.
Tammy and Billie Jo both reside in the West Haven area of Rocky Mount and along with Mitchell, spent much time caring for Tom in recent years, especially the last months when his health began to fade. It was a labor of love and they were joined this year by caregiver Nedrick Dickens, who was also well loved by the Judge and always made his day, giving him a good laugh.
When you live a life as long and full as Judge Tom Matthews did, you see many friends and loved ones pass on. Tom, Billie Jo and Tammy were extremely close to Tom's parents, aunts and uncles and shared countless good times with them before their passings many years ago. For most of his life, everywhere he went in this area it seemed like everyone knew him or at least knew of him. Even those who had faced him in court had affection for him, as he was known as both a fair and great judge.
Even though many of his friends passed on before him, Tom was still well known and well-loved throughout the area. The family is receiving visitors at his home this week and Wheeler & Woodlief Funeral Home, 1120 N. Winstead Ave., is handling the service. The funeral is on Saturday June 7th at 2 pm and graveside services with a military burial will follow at Pineview Cemetery.
The Matthews' were members of the First Baptist Church until recently when they changed their membership to Lakeside Baptist Church which was closer to their home and easier to attend with his failing health. Lakeside's Reverend Jody Wright will conduct the memorial service and former First Baptist Minister, Reverend Bill Grisham, will sing "In The Garden", a song often played on the harmonica by the Judge.
You may share memories and condolences with the Matthews family by visitingwww.wheelerwoodlief.com.
Wheeler & Woodlief Funeral Home - Rocky Mount
1130 N. Winstead Ave
Rocky Mount, NC 27804
Published in Rocky Mount Telegram on June 6, 2014