Dr. Mattilyn Talford Rochester
May 14, 1941 - November 1, 2020
Los Angeles, California - Richburg, South Carolina native Dr. Mattilyn Talford Rochester peacefully passed away Sunday, November 1, 2020, at the age of 79 in Los Angeles, California, surrounded by loved ones.
She was born May 14, 1941 to Lonnie and Maggie Talford. Mattilyn's story nearly ended before it even began. Her parents were in a car accident and a doctor advised Maggie to end the pregnancy or risk being permanently disabled. Maggie followed her heart, accepted the disability, and gave birth to her daughter, whom she lovingly nicknamed "Little Sugar."
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Mattilyn honed the dynamic, outspoken personality that would follow her throughout her life. In spite of experiencing daily racial discrimination, she thrived. At Finley High School in Chester, Mattilyn was president of the Honor Society, elected Miss Finley High, and graduated salutatorian.
While attending Bennett College in 1960, Mattilyn took part in the historic sit-in protests at the whites-only Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. She and her fellow "Bennett Belles" were arrested, but eventually succeeded in integrating the Woolworth's, a crucial step in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Mattilyn graduated summa cum laude from Bennett with a BS in Mathematics and then worked as a math teacher at J.T. Williams Jr. High School in Charlotte, NC., beginning a thirty-year career in education.
In 1963 Mattilyn married the love of her life, Rev. Enoch B. Rochester, and they moved to Burlington, New Jersey, where she taught fifth grade math at Samuel Smith Elementary School. They named their first child Enoch B. Rochester II (Ben-Ben) so when they had a daughter, Mattilyn said "If the men can do it, so can I!" and lovingly named her Mattilyn C. Rochester (Baby-Sis) after herself.
As a mother, Mattilyn was fiercely passionate that her children be well-rounded and exposed to all that life had to offer. Ben-Ben studied violin and played soccer, while Baby-Sis took voice and ballet lessons and played the piano, harp, and organ. During the summers, the Rochesters would travel throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Mattilyn also found time to get her pilot's license, letting off steam from her busy life by going for frequent solo flights.
In 1972, Mattilyn ventured into politics, working with George McGovern's presidential campaign and becoming the first female African-American delegate from the state of New Jersey to the Democratic National Convention. While at the convention, she gave future presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom she knew from her Civil Rights efforts, his first pass to enter the floor. Though nationally known, this was his first time being officially recognized by a national political party.
Mattilyn also continued her education, earning a Master's Degree from Glassboro State College and soon became Vice-Principal of Wilbur Watts Middle School in Burlington City. Mattilyn eventually earned a doctorate (EdD) in Education Administration from Temple University and went on to become the first African-American principal of Burlington City High School before finally accepting the role of Superintendent of Schools of the Pine Hill School District.
Always very active in her community, Mattilyn was a charter member of the Rancocas Valley chapter of the Links Incorporated as well as being a member of Jack and Jill of America, the National Council of Negro Women, the Rotary Club, the Order of the Eastern Star, Theta Pi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and numerous other service and civic organizations. She was featured in Who's Who in America for her various achievements.
After retiring from education, Mattilyn worked for many years as Missionary Supervisor for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) church alongside her husband, who was now a bishop. The territories where she served included the mid-western United States as well as the southern territories of Africa - Malawi, Angola, and South Africa - where she and her husband built numerous schools, orphanages, and HIV/AIDS clinics during their tenure.
Mattilyn also represented AME Zion in the United Council of Churches and, as a member of the World Methodist Council, was one of the first Americans permitted to travel to North Korea. And, as she had done as an educator, Mattilyn did her best to guide the young people of the church. In her trademark St. John Knits and high-top sneakers, Mattilyn was beloved by the kids for both her guidance and her fashion sense.
Mattilyn remained by her husband's side until he succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer's in 2005. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, Mattilyn barely had time to grieve before she too was diagnosed with the same affliction.
As Mattilyn's condition progressed, her spirit never wavered – if anything, she grew more cheerful and full of life. She knew what was happening to her and did her best to enjoy her life as much as she could, for as long as she could. Mattilyn was happy with all she had accomplished, and all she had experienced, from becoming a pilot to scuba diving in the coral reefs to visiting all seven continents ("except Antarctica," she would note). Even in her later years, when she could no longer speak, people would remark about her sweet, colorful personality.
When she retired as superintendent of schools, Mattilyn wrote that she hoped her "influence will last long after my departure." It did then, and it will now. Mattilyn leaves behind a rich legacy of civic duty, leadership, and, above all, inspiration. She always looked beyond the limitations society imposed on gender, color, and class and encouraged others to do the same.
Mattilyn once told a graduating class that "life is lived for others" and she made it her personal mission to assist – and very often push - others to reach their full potential. From students she personally helped get into college to AME Zion parishioners in South Africa who named their children after her, she touched countless lives. Given her mother's early sacrifice, "Little Sugar" had a lot to live up to, but she far exceeded any expectations. Dr. Mattilyn Talford Rochester was, and will remain, a legend.
Mattilyn is survived by her two children, her grandchildren Max and Miles Rochester, her brothers Robert M. and David L. Talford, her sisters-in-law Shirley Randolph and Johnsie Rochester, a host of nieces and nephews, and many friends and other relatives who loved and adored her.
Published in Charlotte Observer on May 15, 2021.