Mark Matthews is mostly blind and hard of hearing, but the 103-year-old former Buffalo Soldier will not let anyone take his picture until he is certain his cavalry hat is on straight. He sits at attention, his chin jutting out, as a friend snaps away.
Matthews, who served on the Mexican border in 1912 and in the Pacific during World War II, is to be inducted tonight into Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 160 on Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie. He is the last survivor of the regiments of black soldiers who patrolled the Old West.
Renee Barron of Columbia, a VFW member and military historian, had been studying the history of the Buffalo Soldiers -- as the black cavalrymen were known -- when she found out that not only was Matthews alive, but he was living in Washington, D.C.
After interviewing Matthews and his family, she learned that he did not know he was eligible for the VFW. Black soldiers who fought in World War II were not officially recognized until 1996. Barron and Paul Soublet, fellow veteran and artist, are co-sponsoring Matthews' membership and covering the costs of his induction into the Glen Burnie post, where Barron is a member.
"I've got three heroes and [Matthews] is one of them," Barron said. "He's a true American hero."
In 1910, at the age of 15, Matthews met members of the Buffalo Soldiers 10th Cavalry when they stopped at a racetrack in Lexington, Ky., where he worked after school. After talking with them and learning they rode horses wherever they went, he was determined to join their ranks.
"I'd exercise the ponies and the soldiers said, 'You should be with us,' " Matthews recalled. "The United States hollered for soldiers, but you had to be 17 to join the Army.
"It stayed on my mind for a long time."
A few months later, Matthews' boss at the racetrack provided him with false documents to vouch for his age, and he went to see a recruiter.
"They got me all trained up and everything," he said. "When I got to 17, they shipped me out right to Arizona."
Soldiers could only ride the trains to Chicago then. Beyond there, they rode their horses.
"When you left Kansas City, you was in wild country," Matthews said. "Everything is outlaw. Arizona -- that was pretty rough, wild country."
Matthews served on border patrol for a while at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he encountered bandits, including Pancho Villa and his men.
Role as patriarch
Fort Huachuca also is where Matthews met Genevieve Hill, his wife of 52 years. Together they had five children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mrs. Matthews died in 1986.
Mary Watson, Matthews' daughter, said his great-grandchildren realize how important he is.
A veteran storyteller
"They like to listen to the stories he tells about the Old West -- that really captures them," she said. "He likes to talk to people. He likes to go back into memory lane."
She said Matthews does not have any major health problems and his memory is intact. He can still walk on his own, but during the winter he stays inside.
"He loves summer -- he loves the heat, and in the summer he pretty much stays on the front porch," she said, adding that his favorite hobby was fishing until his eyesight started to fail.
While in the Army, Matthews played polo and baseball and ran track. And he is proud of the skills he learned as a Buffalo Soldier.
"I could do most every kind of cooking and firing up and everything," he said.
He was also an award-winning marksman. "I could shoot anything. I was one of the best shots they had in the whole outfit."
Meeting interesting people
As he patrolled the West, he met many Native Americans who survived the Trail of Tears, the forced march across the country, including a 100-year-old Cheyenne woman.
"She knew more about the different states than I do," he said, recounting how she was forced to walk from Louisiana to Texas to Arizona.
While stationed at Fort Myer, Va., Matthews' outfit performed drills for dignitaries including Queen Mary of England and the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
He has met President Clinton more than once.
White House visit
After finding a picture of Matthews with Clinton in the Oval Office, historian Barron asked him if he liked meeting Clinton at his house.
"No, at that time he wasn't president, he was governor at that time," Matthews corrected her. "I met him twice once when he was president and once when he was governor. He's a nice man."
Even though the Army was segregated while he served in the military, Matthews said he never felt the sting of racism.
"I've been all right. I've been treated nice," he said. "Nope, nothing bothered me, been treated fine. No trouble."
Pub Date: 3/23/98