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Matel Dawson Jr., 81; Gave $1.3 Million to Schools on Forklift Driver's Income

November 08, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Matel Dawson Jr., a forklift operator with an eighth-grade education who became a major philanthropist in the later years of his life, has died at home in Detroit. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Before his death Saturday at age 81, he had donated $1.3 million to higher education, including about $650,000 to Wayne State University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 1996.

"Today's youth are our future, and education is the best investment I can make," he once explained.

In addition to Wayne State, Dawson contributed regularly to several community colleges and state universities, a local library, his Christian church, the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund. His 1994 gift of $50,000 to the latter broke all records, including those he himself had set. At the time he made the gift, his annual salary was $60,000.

Dawson's formula for accumulating cash was decidedly low-tech. He never took vacations. "Work is more enjoyable," he told The Times from his forklift at age 78. He worked overtime, enough to add about $40,000 per year to his income. He drove a 1985 Ford Escort well into the '90s, and he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Detroit's no-frills neighborhood of Highland Park.

Beyond that, he once admitted having invested well.

A beefy man with a fondness for barbecued short ribs and catfish, he went by the nickname "Mat" and was known for his laughing eyes and a smile that transformed the lower half of his face.

Dawson was born in Shreveport, La., one of seven children whose father was a groundskeeper and later a hospital cook. His mother, who took in laundry to help support the family, taught him the value of thrift. He described her as "a saving woman -- even if it was just two or three dollars, my mother would say, 'Save.' "

Dawson moved to Detroit in 1940 because two uncles could help him get a job at the Ford Motor Co., where he worked until retiring more than 60 years later.

He married in 1942 and divorced after 34 years. He was the father of one girl. "One is more than enough," he once said.

But if Dawson was not a family man at heart, he was committed to making a better life for younger generations.

One scholarship student at Wayne State, who met him while she was completing her education in fashion merchandising with his financial support, said she got to know Dawson at an honorary dinner for him last year.

"I thought he would be a money machine who wouldn't miss the money," the student, Sonia Taggert, said of her blue-collar benefactor. "Then I found out where he worked, what he did. It motivated me to do better."

For his extraordinary philanthropy, Dawson was showered with titles and awards, including "Michiganian of the Year" in 1991.

He was a guest on Oprah Winfrey's show and "The Nightly News" with Tom Brokaw. He met then-President Clinton at the White House. But it was a trip to New York City where he met Bill Cosby that he boasted about in a recent news magazine interview.

"He put his arms around me and said, 'Where'd you get all that money?' " Dawson recalled of the TV star. "I said, 'I'm tryin' to catch up with you!' "

Last year, Dawson ordered a customized crypt from India and decided how his epitaph should read: "Mat Dawson Jr. -- Gone but Not Forgotten."

Dawson is survived by his daughter and one grandchild.

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