(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Carl Matheson ’57 will tell you that he could sing “Hark the Sound” almost as soon as he could sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Both Carl’s parents were Carolina alumni, and when he was a boy, they brought him down from Taylorsville several times to see Charlie Justice ’50 play football. That’s all it took: When it came time for him to apply to college, he only applied to one place. It was as natural to go to UNC, he said, as to go from 11th grade to 12th.
In his long association with Carolina, Carl has sung the alma mater countless times – and somewhere along the way, he had an epiphany about its lyrics. Carl thought the line “Carolina, priceless gem” should really be “Carolina’s priceless gem.” And that’s the way he sings it: The University, to Carl, is the state’s priceless gem, its proudest achievement. Stick Williams ’75, who told this story, says that Carl is fascinating to be around, in part because he has thoroughly internalized the history of the University. Stick says: “That kind of love, that kind of knowledge, that kind of understanding of how people have impacted the University over the years positions him to be a tremendous leader.”
And an inspiring leader he has been. In his good-humored, unassuming way, Carl has accomplished much – and motivated others to do the same. He has served on Carolina’s Board of Visitors and the executive committee of the Rams Club, and currently is a member of the board of directors of The Carolina Club. He chaired county and regional Morehead Foundation selection committees. Through Southwood, the furniture company he led, he provided The Carolina Club and other parts of the Alumni Center with quality furnishings on very generous terms. He has been a member of the UNC Educational Foundation’s executive committee. And, of course, we’re particularly grateful to him for his decade of work for the General Alumni Association Board of Directors, including a year as chair – service that Carl says was as meaningful as anything he’s ever done. It meant a great deal to all who have served and worked with Carl as well.
All this service was spurred by Carl’s desire to give back to the University that opened his eyes to the world around him. “I found my conscious mind at Chapel Hill,” Carl says. “I learned how to think, how to analyze, how to live with a variety of other people, all sorts of them, to find out an awful lot of things in the world of which I didn’t know.” His experiences at Carolina, he says, gave a small town boy a wide-ranging curiosity that has lasted 50 years.
That curiosity led to his interest in miniature soldiers and Indians, 120-millimeter figures that he put together and then painted with meticulous detail after researching the history of each to determine authentic colors, clothing and other details. This activity was a great stress reliever for Carl, one that he says he hasn’t needed since retiring. Now he enjoys golf and saving bluebirds. He says he was “Tom Sawyered” by a friend into joining a conservation project. Carl helps track the population, counting how many eggs are hatched, how many become fledglings and so on.
Another tracking activity of Carl’s might be more familiar to you. Carl is probably equally known for his modesty, his congeniality, his dedicated service to the University and for what he calls “his streak.” At some point, Carl noticed that every week’s issue of Sports Illustrated had some kind of reference to UNC, either to the University itself or to an undergraduate or faculty member or coach, or to one of its alumni. Mia Hamm ’94, maybe, or Michael Jordan ’86. He started tracking it seriously and – setting aside the swimsuit issue, which as he says isn’t really about sports – he has found a UNC reference in every issue for more than eight years now.
Tracking that streak, of course, requires a profound knowledge of UNC and its people. As Stick Williams says, Carl is a walking encyclopedia where the University is concerned. Stick says Carl taught him much about contributing to the University and about understanding its history – in terms of what has determined whether the institution went in one direction or another and how it became such a great institution.
And despite his hours and years of service to his alma mater, he still doesn’t think he’s given back enough to repay the University for opening doors for him. Perhaps the best way to convey Carl’s deep feelings for the University is to quote what he told graduates at the 2004 commencement. “Don’t drop out now,” Carl told them. “Do anything you can do to stay in touch with this magical place. Serve, return, nurture your love for Carolina. It will be a wonderful experience for years to come.”
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. A list of previous award recipients is available online.
This year’s recipients are Max Chapman ’66 of Scarborough, N.Y., chair of the UNC Endowment Fund; Mary Anne Dickson ’63 of Charlotte, co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Council; Carl Matheson ’57 of Hickory, a past chair of the GAA Board of Directors; and C.D. Spangler ’54 of Charlotte, former president of the UNC System.