John P. "Big John" Matthews, a retired and decorated Baltimore City police officer who was an accomplished horseman, died of renal failure Dec. 28 at his Harford County home. He was 88.
Born in Baltimore and raised on North Montford Avenue, he attended Baltimore public schools.
During World War II, Mr. Matthews served in the Army's Signal Corps in Saipan. He left the military as a sergeant and remained active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.
In 1950, he joined the old Baltimore City Park Police. Two years later, Mr. Matthews was part of the Police Department and was elected president of his Police Academy class. His first assignment was as a motorcycle patrolman in the Traffic Division.
"The quick action of a motorcycle policeman is credited with saving dozens of lives in an apartment house fire on Eutaw Place," a 1958 Evening Sun article noted. News accounts detailed how Mr. Matthews raced through the building and alerted occupants. The blaze spread to three adjoining rowhouses, where he also roused tenants. No lives were lost. In 1959, he received an American Legion medal for his "outstanding heroism."
He was later assigned to the mounted section and given a large gelding named Reno. Mr. Matthews was a familiar sight in downtown Baltimore as he rode through the streets in official duties and at parades.
He also rode as a civilian and was a member of the Rosedale Rangers, a group of riding enthusiasts he founded in 1959. He rode until about 15 years ago and had trained his horse to jump through a ring of fire.
In a 1982 Evening Sun article, Mr. Matthews recalled that he "hated to dole out traffic tickets" and wrote messages to drivers - "Take your time, not your life."
During his career, he received 24 official departmental commendations, including the Medal of Honor, a special commendation and the Bronze Star. On his last day of duty, Mayor William Donald Schaefer proclaimed May 31, 1979, "John Matthews Day."
A Mass was offered Friday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Fullerton. He was buried with Police Department honors.
Survivors include his wife of 12 years, the former Greta Leffers; a daughter, Jacqueline Mae Anderson of Olympia, Wash.; a sister, Edith German of Baltimore; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His first wife, the former Katherine Brooks, died in 1990.