Philanthropic Forklift Driver Uplifts Through Giving
By Erik Lords
At age 80, Mat Dawson Jr. of Detroit is still active, is in good health and works the same full-time job he started 60 years ago. His spirits are high nearly every day, but he already knows exactly what he wants engraved on his tombstone: “Gone but not forgotten.” Whenever Dawson “goes” — as he refers to death — the humble forklift driver who works at a Ford Motor Company plant in Dearborn, Mich., certainly won’t be forgotten.
He will be remembered by dozens of college students who can afford to go to college because of his generosity. In the last decade, Dawson has donated more than $1.3 million to Wayne State University and to other higher education institutions to provide scholarships for students of all races. This semester he gave Wayne State $200,000, bringing his total gifts to the school to $632,000, and says he plans to give the university another $200,000 next school year. He has also given money to the United Negro College Fund ($240,000), Louisiana State University ($300,000) and the NAACP ($150,000).
Such philanthropic deeds are rare for a man of Dawson’s financial means. He works for an hourly wage, drives a 1995 red Ford Escort and lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment.
Ted Sell, a 1997 Wayne State sociology graduate, says Dawson’s scholarship money helped his transition from a career in auto parts design.
Sell arrived at Wayne State with about 50 credits he earned at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. While at Wayne State, he worked full time at Madison Design in Warren, Mich., where he designed automatic weld fixtures, the small parts needed to build cars. During school, Sell’s usual school and workday went from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday. “On weekends, I was pretty shut in my apartment studying,” says Sell, 34.
It was worth it, says Sells, who now works for a state program helping foster children who have been abused or neglected. “I wanted to do more to help young people,” he says. “The money (Dawson) so generously shared with me, has trickled down and helped more individuals. I probably wouldn’t have the job I have now without his help.”
Sonia Taggart, a single mother, will graduate from Wayne State next month with a degree in fashion merchandising and marketing. She says she would not be sporting a robe and mortarboard in a few weeks without Dawson’s scholarship, which totaled $10,000 over four years — enough to cover much of her tuition.
“I would have been forced to go to school part time, and that would have been discouraging for a single mother,” says Taggart.
Before meeting Dawson at a recent awards ceremony honoring him, she thought he was “a money machine — someone who would not miss the money he was giving away,” Taggart says. “Then I found out what he does, where he works, and I think that’s what really floors you about him. He’s so humble.”
When Taggart won the scholarship four years ago, her daughter Azuza — now 7 — was in preschool, and she needed the financial help more than ever. Dawson’s huge heart inspired Taggart to be a better student.
“I felt like he was watching over me, and I made sure I spent the money very wisely,” says Taggart, who saved and bought a used car to commute to class each day. “I thought about the fact that this man is a laborer, a blue-collar worker and is able to do that. It motivated me to do better.”
Up from the South
Dawson came to Detroit in 1939 at age 19, having grown up in segregated Shreveport, La. His father, Matel Dawson Sr. worked as a groundskeeper at the Shreveport fairgrounds and on and off as an independent farmer, Dawson says. His mother did laundry for some of Shreveport’s wealthier residents.
“Those were tough times, but we made it,” he says. “We were never on welfare and never received any food stamps.”
Neither of his parents received more than a seventh-grade education, but “they were not illiterate,” Dawson says. And he beams with pride when recalling how his father held down a job at a Shreveport hospital where he “started as a dishwasher and moved up to become head cook.”
The fifth of seven children, Dawson says he still remembers parables about being frugal that his parents shared with him.
“My mother was a saving woman,” he says. “Even if it was just two or three dollars, my mother would say ‘save.'”
He was also shaped by the lessons he learned about racism in the Jim Crow South. In fact, racial injustice fueled his desire to become a healing, uniting presence later in life by providing for students of all races.
“Back then, if you were walking down the sidewalk and saw a White person approaching you, you had to get off the sidewalk and let them pass by,” he says. “We had separate water fountains and always had to ride in the back of the bus. I just thought I’d be more comfortable going somewhere else.”
In Detroit, he had two uncles who worked for Ford. The Motor City was “much better than the South, but a lot of barriers still had to be broken down,” Dawson says.
He calls Ford “the greatest motor company” and applauds its commitment to providing equal employment opportunities as early as the 1940s.
“Ford always hired Blacks in skill positions even back then, and they had Black supervisors,” he says.
When the company first began offering stocks to hourly employees in the early 80s, Dawson was one of the first to sign up.
“A lot of people didn’t want to take it,” he says. “They thought it was just for rich people.”
Investing in the stock market, along with working overtime on weekends and holidays, has generated much of his wealth. His annual salary last year topped $100,000 including overtime, he says.
Leaving a Legacy
Dawson credits his giving nature to following Christian principles on sharing. A 37-year member of the People’s Community Church in Detroit, he admits “to not going as often as I’d like,” but according to church officials, he has donated thousands to the church in recent years.
Dawson named his most recent gift to Wayne State after his parents, who were always supporters of education.
“If they were alive, I think they’d be very, very proud of me,” says Dawson, who is divorced and has an adult daughter, JoAnn Dawson-Agee, who lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “I think they’d constantly be talking about their son, and that would make me feel pretty good.”
Dawson’s story has touched people around the nation and brought him attention he would have never dreamed of growing up in Shreveport. Oprah Winfrey has had him on her show as a guest; he met U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; he visited the White House as a guest of former President Bill Clinton, and was interviewed on national television by NBC “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw.
With the money he has given to colleges, Dawson could have purchased a 40-foot yacht to cruise the Great Lakes, or a 4,000 square-foot home, and put two luxury cars in his garage. Instead he wants to uplift the lives of young people.
“I’ve owned big homes before, but now I’m not trying to impress anybody,” he says. “I just want to help people, leave a legacy and be remembered.”
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