Internationally famous jazz musician Sonny Stitt remembered Kenneth Mathews’ teaching and encouragement as vital to the development of his career and visited the Mathews home whenever he was in Saginaw. So did John Krell, flutist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. They were just two of the musicians who recognized the importance of their years with Mathews who taught music in the Saginaw Public School system for over 40 years, inspiring several generations of students.
Ken Mathews was born in Muncie, Indiana, on August 20, 1907 and graduated from Muncie High School at the age of 15. He began his college education at 16 and graduated from Ball State Teachers College with a B.A. in music education. In the fall of 1928, he began teaching at DeKalb, Illinois, as music supervisor.
He married violinist and poet Agnes Greenwalt on June 12, 1930. That summer, they went to summer school to begin working for their master’s degrees at the University of Michigan. It was considered the best of music schools.
While there, they met the music superintendent for the Saginaw Public Schools who convinced them to come to Saginaw. Working summers, Ken received his masters in 1933. Agnes shared her talents and love of all the arts with family and the community. While raising six active children, she also taught in the schools and played in regional symphonies and sang in several choirs.
Ken taught at Central Junior High School. While there, he went above and beyond any of the other junior high band teachers. His bands were in all the city’s parades and he always marched with his band dressed in his white uniform. His bands played concerts, competitions and events. He could always gather a small group together as entertainment for the lunch or dinner meetings of civic groups. He kept his place at CJHS because he had 100 students in each class and they would have needed three teachers to replace him.
He taught students who didn’t know how to read anything to read music. He helped poor students to find white shirts and dark shoes for concerts and was always ready to fix a broken instrument at the last minute.
From 1956 to 1958, he taught at Arthur Hill High School before going to Webber Junior High School until he retired in 1970. He was very popular with his students for his humor and disciplined methodical teaching. He was instrumental in organizing the Saginaw American Federation of Teachers and the Teachers Credit Union.
His zest for life and passion for music had a significant impact on music in the Great Lakes Bay Region. He was one of the founders of the Saginaw Civic Symphony in 1932 and played in the symphony for many years. He was honored by the city council for playing in the Saginaw Eddy Band for 58 years. Ball State University and the University of Michigan honored him for a lifetime of outstanding music direction. Saginaw News columnist Ed Miller hailed him as “Saginaw’s Music Man” and “one of Saginaw’s most remarkable musicians.” He directed the Vassar Summer Concerts and was a member of the National Guard Band. He directed the church choirs of St. John’s Episcopal and Grace Lutheran. He was the first director of the Midland Symphony from 1936-42. A clarinetist (and also a saxophone player) he played and/or directed the Shrine bands and the Germania Orchestra.
He also played with jazz groups, German, Polka, Dixie and dance bands. In the 1940s, he was the director of the Saginaw Civic Chorus and Midland’s Men of Music. He was active in the Musician’s Union and became a life long member of Masonic Lodge #77, Elf Khurafeh Shrine and the Retired Teachers Association.
His hobbies included fishing, hunting, camping, photography, polishing rocks, bridge, bowling, sailing and archery. He built his own wooden canoe and sailboat and hand made all his bows and arrows. His garden fed his family of eight for eight months every year. In his later years, he walked for miles every day.
According to daughter Roz (Berlin) he could gerry-rig almost anything and completely redid a 19th century Weber grand piano which was used for several concerts at the Saginaw Auditorium.
He was especially proud that all his children graduated from colleges and taught, volunteered or worked in the arts and sciences. They were all inspired to follow in his footsteps.
Kenneth Mathews died on December 29, 2000, but his legacy lives on.
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