In this year of our victory, absolute and final, over German fascism and Japanese militarism; in this time of peace so long awaited, which we are determined with all the United Nations to make permanent; on this day of our abundance, strength, and achievement; let us give thanks to Almighty Providence for these exceeding blessings.”
These were the opening lines of President Harry S. Truman’s 1945 Thanksgiving Day proclamation, spoken inside London’s Royal Albert Hall and broadcast via radio around the globe.
Only it wasn’t Truman who spoke them. It was an American Army private fresh from battle whose voice would become familiar to many in the First State: Donald Reed Mathewson.
Although the Scots-Irish Mathewson clan had lived in Delaware since 1802, and two generations had lived on Brecks Lane, near the old powder mills, Mathewson was born in Wausaukee, Wis., in 1922—arriving just before electricity. “I was born in the dark, literally,” he likes to quip. Alfred Mathewson, his dad, had moved the family to the Badger State to further work in DuPont’s burgeoning dynamite business—which Alfred had played a signal role in developing, building on his experience clearing land for agricultural development.
Mathewson’s mother, Martha, was a special but too-brief influence on his life. A devout Presbyterian, a graduate of Goldey College (later an instructor for the War Department in the new art of touch-typing) and a woman of great personal charm, Martha inspired her son with a love of the arts. She made regular jaunts to the first-run movie theater to keep up with that startling medium, the young Mathewson bundled in the backseat of their heater-less car during ruthless Wisconsin winters.
“My mother also enjoyed the prestige that came with her husband’s being a mover and shaker in Wausaukee,” Mathewson says. Among the family’s estimable friends were the Wyeths. Mathewson tells of finding himself “in the studio of N.C. Wyeth, at the time the foremost illustrator in the nation. My guide was his son Andrew.” Yes, that Andrew Wyeth.
Martha died from cardiac issues when Mathewson was only 11, a loss he and his father felt keenly throughout their lives. With work often whisking him from home, Alfred thought it best to send his son to a boarding school, the Mission House Academy, where the young man would nurture a love of the stage by performing in school productions. From there he enrolled at Lakeland College, majoring in English and minoring in theater.
His studies would be interrupted, however, by World War II. Mathewson reported to Fort Sheridan in Chicago and from there was shipped not to the military theater but to the Colorado School of Mines to study engineering under military auspices. But as the war dragged on, basic training recommenced, culminating in a front-line position in northern France as a member of the “Black Panther” 66th Infantry.
Though Germany’s surrender brought an end to the war in Europe, Mathewson was not home-free, but instead was shipped to “positions around the Japanese main islands.” The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima—the rough equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT—and another on Nagasaki stilled the fighting in the Pacific under mushroom clouds that shrouded the world’s imagination with a destructive force DuPont and Alfred Mathewson could never have conceived.
The war finally over, Mathewson was treated to three months in London with a special-service unit, where he enjoyed classes at the Central School of Speech Training and Theatre. There he picked up the lost threads of his theatrical ambitions and began dabbling in broadcasting, building on his work as a military radio operator. It was during this time that he was asked to render the written words of President Truman into spoken ones in Royal Albert Hall, part of a benefit for a Memorial Chapel honoring American war dead.
Discharged in 1946, Mathewson headed to Delaware to join his father, who had returned to his birthplace. It was in Newark that family friends introduced Mathewson to Beatrice Matthews, a native Delawarean with her own love of theater. As they courted, Mathewson pursued his acting ambitions, performing in summer stock. He and Matthews married in 1949, joining forces to co-write children’s plays and produce drama locally. Mathewson would eventually become director of the Wilmington Drama League. But it was becoming uncomfortably apparent that an acting life held little hope of an income sufficiently robust to raise a family. So he set into motion a new career, one that drew on his postwar European experience: radio.
At WAMS in Newark, Mathewson made his debut playing big band and polka music, with local news reports punctuating the rhythms. A natural storyteller, Mathewson’s voice conveyed a soothing, fireside-chatty warmth. Before long he was news and sports director for the station, and ultimately president of the Wilmington Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association.
A move to WTUX resulted in greater recognition, Mathewson’s name and call letters adorning local billboards. But another love beckoned: newspapers. The prospect of engraving his reports onto the printed page rather than having them evaporate over the airwaves—not to mention happy memories of working on a Wausaukee weekly as “typesetter, compositor, janitor, reporter, and job press operator,” drove his career in a new direction. He was offered the editorship of the New Castle Weekly, and Mathewson pitched his voice into a new key, as a civil rights advocate with an eye toward fiscal responsibility, reflecting his self-described liberal Republican viewpoint.
The paper folded after a few short years, owing to climbing costs. With three young children—Don Jr., Denise and Wendy—to support, Mathewson combed his many contacts and joined the Greater Newark Chamber of Commerce as executive vice president. He then worked his way to a management role overseeing tourism and economic development for the state, where his communication and artistic skills informed winning appeals to explore all that Delaware had to offer.
“What could be more enjoyable than selling a dream?” Mathewson told a News Journal reporter in an interview.
In 1976 Mathewson commenced a project that would become his obsession: Four Chimneys: a 4,000-square-foot, 18th-century Georgian manor house in Magnolia. It was reportedly a gift from Thomas Collins to his daughter, Mary, upon her wedding to Joseph Barker. Collins was a Revolutionary soldier and until his death governor of Delaware. When Mathewson got his hands on the property, however, it had traveled far from its original condition and was little more than a burned-out shell. But it sat on two acres and was surrounded by the quiet of potato fields (punctuated occasionally by low-flying aircraft descending upon Dover Air Force Base)—and was a steal at $5,000.
Mathewson spent the next 30 years restoring the Barker mansion. But giving new life to the superstructure was only half his task. Someone also had to tell its surprising story: The house may have been the secret rendezvous retreat of Thomas Collins and his Revolutionary War commander—Gen. George Washington. While Washington may not have slept at Four Chimneys, Mathewson was convinced he plotted military maneuvers there. He only had to prove it.
Every spare moment found him at his computer, searching archives and communicating with state historical societies. And no one within earshot could avoid the latest report on Four Chimneys’ hidden history. Throughout his days working for the state, during a stint teaching at Delaware Tech, and deep into his retirement, Mathewson continued to stitch together both the great house and its story, with wife Bea fashioning the echoing chambers into a home that displayed an elegant American style.
By 2007, Mathewson, then 85, could no longer meet the mansion’s demands. His declining physical condition meant he and Bea would have to leave the future of Four Chimneys to new owners. They downsized to smaller digs in North Wilmington, near their daughter and son-in-law. In 2009 a series of mini-strokes appeared to have written Mathewson’s end. But this was a man who had read through dramatic chapters in his life before. He wasn’t ready to have a coda composed for him yet.
Mathewson bounced back, and though his mobility had suffered, his ambition remained intact. He settled into a nursing home and, on a laptop, continued his research into the Washington–Four Chimneys connection.
Bea soon followed him into the same facility, where they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and Mathewson’s 90th birthday. There Mathewson struggles today, and there his story will almost certainly reach its end.
“I remember your dad’s voice,” a neighbor told Mathewson’s daughter recently—not surprising, given its indelible singularity. Fellow Delawareans may remember his life, too. And the stories he told. And the Delaware dreams he sold.
(Mr. Mathewson was still in hospice care when this story went to press.)