He Never Doubted Clouds Would Break: John H. Mather 1943-2020

He Never Doubted Clouds Would Break: John H. Mather 1943-2020

“Why are you buy­ing expen­sive pills over the counter?” asked Dr. John Math­er. We were in an ele­va­tor dur­ing a 2001 Churchill Con­fer­ence. “Don’t you have an hon­or­able dis­charge from the Coast Guard?” He was then a Com­man­der in the U.S. Pub­lic Health Ser­vice and Assis­tant Inspec­tor Gen­er­al at the Veteran’s Admin­is­tra­tion. I’d nev­er thought my four years with the USCG wor­thy of any­thing spe­cial, but I did have my DD-214. Math­er said I was enti­tled: “We issue cheap pills.”

In the lift with us was Luce Churchill, mar­ried to Sir Winston’s grand­son. Over­hear­ing, she cracked: “They may even have pills that you two don’t think you need.” Hmm. At any rate, Dr. Math­er sent me the forms, and I’ve been a sat­is­fied VA cus­tomer ever since. It’s strange how you think of such odd snip­pets when a friend dies.

Life and times

Franklin Town Crier

Of Scot­tish her­itage, John Math­er was edu­cat­ed at John Lyon School, Har­row. There as Head Boy he met Sir Win­ston Churchill—something he always cher­ished. He stud­ied med­i­cine at Mid­dle­sex Hos­pi­tal Med­ical School. In school he met his first wife Susan, moved to Mary­land, and became an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen in 1975. In 2004 he retired after 30 years as a VA physi­cian exec­u­tive. Fol­low­ing a 2010 divorce he moved to Franklin, Ten­nessee, and sub­se­quent­ly mar­ried the psy­chi­a­trist Karen Rhea. Fail­ing at retire­ment, he became an inde­pen­dent med­ical examiner.

John’s cita­tions were vast. He was an Ordained Elder of the Pres­by­ter­ian Church, a soc­cer coach and ref­er­ee. In the U.S. Army Med­ical Corps he held the rank of Major and received the Army Com­men­da­tion medal. A fed­er­al medi­a­tor and men­tor, he held fel­low­ships in the Acad­e­my of Oto­laryn­gol­o­gy and Head and Neck Surgery, the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety and the Geron­to­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca. He was Knight Com­man­der of the Sov­er­eign Mil­i­tary Order of the Tem­ple of Jerusalem and Grand Chirur­geon for the Grand Pri­o­ry of the USA. He belonged to the Inter­na­tion­al Bow Tie Soci­ety, the Women in War Group, and was Franklin’s des­ig­nat­ed Town Crier. For Inter­na­tion­al Clan Dou­glas he served as Ten­nessee Regent.

His loss was a shock. On Decem­ber 5th John took him­self to hos­pi­tal with short­ness of breath. They diag­nosed atri­al fib­ril­la­tion and con­ges­tive heart fail­ure. He was Math­er to the end. “The doc­tor said he made them all laugh in the emer­gency room,” his daugh­ter writes. “His ICU nurse not­ed his jovial demeanor.” That remind­ed me of Churchill, who wrote of his last sad encounter with the defeat­ed French in 1940: “I dis­played the smil­ing coun­te­nance and con­fi­dent air which are thought suit­able when things are very bad.”

Mather as Churchillian

We were col­leagues for over a quar­ter cen­tu­ry. We met over—who else?—Winston Spencer Churchill. John was a pathog­ra­ph­er, spe­cial­iz­ing in Churchill’s med­ical his­to­ry. He had deeply researched the sub­ject, through the archives of Sir Winston’s doc­tors. In 1997 Dr. Math­er revealed lengthy research destroy­ing the long-run­ning myth that Churchill’s father died of syphilis. Last year he revised and updat­ed those find­ings for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Sir Winston’s health was a touchy sub­ject with his fam­i­ly, who believed in doc­tor-patient pri­va­cy. His per­son­al physi­cian, Lord Moran, was heav­i­ly crit­i­cized for pub­lish­ing his “diaries” after Churchill’s death. Dr. Math­er put off writ­ing a book on the sub­ject, in part for that rea­son. This didn’t pre­vent him from enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ing Drs. Allis­ter Vale and John Scadding, with their fine new book Win­ston Churchill’s Ill­ness­es.

The found­ing of The Churchill Cen­tre, Boston, 1995. Seat­ed L-R: Ambas­sador Paul Robin­son Jr., John Math­er, Lady Soames, John Plump­ton, Randy Bar­ber, Richard Lang­worth, Alan Fitch. Stand­ing L-R: David Simp­son, Dou­glas Rus­sell, James Muller, Park­er Lee, Celia Sandys, Bill Ives, George Lewis, Cyril Mazan­sky, David Bol­er, Jon­ah Trieb­wass­er. (Pho­to: Bob LaPree)








Laboring in the vineyard

John Math­er joined the Churchill Society’s Board of Gov­er­nors in the ear­ly 1990s. He was at Mary Soames’s right hand when we mor­phed into The Churchill Cen­tre in 1995. Togeth­er we tack­led a for­mi­da­ble task: a cen­ter for Churchill Stud­ies, some­thing we nev­er quite realized—but we gave our all. We began rais­ing an endow­ment, John at the fore­front. Park­er Lee, our exec­u­tive direc­tor, pro­claimed him our “super tanker” for fund­ing more of it than most of us put togeth­er. He served the board as Sec­re­tary for a decade, orga­nized numer­ous con­fer­ences and sem­i­nars. We gave him the Blenheim Award, our high­est com­men­da­tion for ser­vice. It was woe­ful­ly inadequate.

John was keen also to pro­mote Churchill inter­est local­ly. In Bowie, Mary­land he found­ed and was the long­time pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Soci­ety for Churchill. In Franklin he orga­nized the Churchill Soci­ety of Ten­nessee. I had the priv­i­lege to be invit­ed to address both groups, and was impressed by their enthu­si­asm. To a man or woman, they cred­it­ed their suc­cess to John.

1 1/2 Scots: John (right) wore the Dou­glas tar­tan; I am in Fer­gu­son tar­tan but only hon­orary (I mar­ried one).

Pro­fes­sor War­ren Kim­ball remem­bers how in 2016-17, John orga­nized “two imag­i­na­tive pro­grams on teach­ing Churchill for Franklin Coun­ty high school teach­ers. He brought me and oth­er his­to­ri­ans to lec­ture and then con­duct small sem­i­nar-like dis­cus­sions.” (See Richard Knight, below.) When I joined the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project in 2014, he was there to encour­age and contribute—and whee­dle Hills­dale schol­ars to come to Tennessee.

Always, triumphantly, “in touch”

Above all he cher­ished the mem­o­ry of Churchill, whose words fit him well: He “strove to the utmost of his capac­i­ty and author­i­ty, which were pow­er­ful” … “The hopes he raised, the promis­es he made, the great sup­port and hon­our he received from them, seemed to require of him stren­u­ous exer­tions.” John was impa­tient with the sharks and grifters of this world, tack­ling every chal­lenge with bull­dog tenacity—even when friends urged him not to waste time on for­lorn hopes. Again in Churchill’s words: “What were these hopes in which he was frus­trat­ed? They were sure­ly among the most noble and benev­o­lent instincts of the human heart.”

Mes­sages from his friends echo each oth­er. “I just talked with him yes­ter­day”… “Sat­ur­day morn­ing he sent me a text” … “He called only a few days ago.” Sure­ly “all the trum­pets sound­ed for him on the oth­er side.”

Churchill wrote of T.E. Lawrence: “The sum­mons which reached him, and for which he was equal­ly pre­pared, was of a dif­fer­ent order. It came as he would have wished it. swift and sud­den on the wings of Speed. He had reached the Last Leap in his gal­lant course through life. ‘All is over! Fleet career. Dash of grey­hound slip­ping thongs. Flight of fal­con, bound of deer. Mad hoof-thun­der in our rear. Cold air rush­ing up our lungs. Din of many tongues.’”*

His epi­taph might be the one a great lady, Diana Coop­er, penned to the noble fig­ure John revered:

“One who nev­er turned his back but marched breast forward, 

Nev­er doubt­ed clouds would break,

“Nev­er dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,

“Held we fall to rise, are baf­fled to fight bet­ter, Sleep to wake.”

“Here’s to John”: from the Old Guard

All below served on the old Board of Gov­er­nors of The Churchill Cen­tre or were advi­sors thereto.

I am heart­sick. Three weeks ago, we togeth­er decid­ed that the end of next May or ear­ly June, we would trav­el to Scot­land and do as much of the Sin­gle Malt Scotch Whisky Trail that we could accom­plish in a week. He left a mes­sage for us on Fri­day to call him and lis­ten to all that he had put togeth­er. Sad­ly, I was away for most of the day and didn’t get the mes­sage until late Sat­ur­day. As with all of you, he was a trea­sured friend. But he had to buy a Bent­ley to one-up my Jaguar.  —Randy Bar­ber, Markham, Ontario

John called me a few days ago just to chat. He men­tioned you sev­er­al times and also told me about the new Bent­ley. Cer­tain­ly he had med­ical sit­u­a­tions this past year but didn’t men­tion any of them on the call. He sound­ed like his usu­al self. John Mather’s friend­ship and loy­al­ty often trans­lat­ed into enthu­si­asm. Last year I advised him I had invit­ed author Lynne Olson to speak at a new lec­ture series I had cre­at­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. He imme­di­ate­ly said he want­ed to be there and made the 1100-mile trip from Franklin to Char­lottesville and back. His sup­port was so appre­ci­at­ed. His fre­quent calls were infor­ma­tive and enter­tain­ing on many lev­els. I will cer­tain­ly miss him. —Park­er H. Lee III, Rich­mond, Virginia

* * *

Life­time dream: John’s Bentley.

I just had a text from him Tues­day. He told me about a month ago that fol­low­ing through with a long ambi­tion, he’d just bought a Bent­ley. What a shock. Very sad. He had so much ener­gy. —Jacque­line Dean Wit­ter, Red­wood City, California

He has always been a loy­al friend and a tire­less work­er with an incred­i­ble lev­el of pas­sion for every­thing, and I do mean every­thing. We are very sad to receive this news. —Craig Horn, Wed­ding­ton, North Carolina

Our 2016 high school pro­gram attract­ed about 35 teach­ers over two days. In a sur­prise move, John invit­ed them all to din­ner, and I have the can­celed check to prove it! The 2017 pro­gram was scaled back to one day and about 20 teach­ers. Speak­ers includ­ed War­ren Kim­ball, James Muller, Dou­glas Rus­sell and Chris Har­mon. Bill Mott, a retired British Army com­mand sergeant major, was there in full uni­form to meet and greet and give the teach­ers some­thing to remem­ber. It was a mem­o­rable moment. —Richard H. Knight, Jr., Nashville, Tennessee

I am huge­ly shocked. He was a good friend, a fine man, and I shall miss him very much. I recall with great affec­tion his ready smile and cheer­ful­ness from so many of the con­fer­ences over the years. A Brit “over there,” he nev­er lost his Eng­lish­ness. —David Bol­er, Ton­bridge, Kent

* * *

We met mem­o­rably in the ear­ly 1990s and my first Churchill tour and con­fer­ence in Eng­land. Lunch was at Celia’s Sandys’ and I was seat­ed between Julian Churchill and a Dr. Math­er. Being new, I knew noth­ing about either, but shall nev­er for­get their con­ver­sa­tion. John was explain­ing his the­o­ry, from study­ing med­ical records, that Lord Ran­dolph Churchill’s death was not as report­ed. I was awestruck! We so enjoyed know­ing and work­ing with John over the years. I know my late hus­band Jer­ry is agree­ing with me from above. —Judith (Kambestad) Shep­hard, Los Osos, California

Fare thee well, Dr. John. A proud Scot and proud Amer­i­can. An Old Boy at Har­row (though not the same school as WSC). A wel­com­ing host. A gen­er­ous friend. A rapid talk­er but a good lis­ten­er. A man with sense of humor and the ear for anec­dote. He was a tire­less work­er in the cause of keep­ing the Churchill mem­o­ry green and the record accu­rate. Good-bye, old friend. —Judge Dou­glas S. Rus­sell, Iowa City, Iowa

* * *

I met John Math­er through the Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Soci­ety. Judith and I often saw him at con­fer­ences. We have won­der­ful mem­o­ries of times we spent with War­ren Kim­ball, Dou­glas Rus­sell, and John when he orga­nized Churchill sem­i­nars for teach­ers in Franklin, Ten­nessee. John was a mag­nif­i­cent host. He cleaned snow off our rental car on a Jan­u­ary morn­ing that was cold­er in Franklin than in Anchor­age. He was always upbeat, and we will nev­er for­get his enthu­si­asm. What­ev­er he did, he threw him­self into it 110%. If he meets Win­ston Churchill in heav­en, he’ll have home court advan­tage in get­ting answers to all his ques­tions about the great man’s med­ical his­to­ry. —James W. Muller, Anchor­age, Alaska

John some­times sound­ed like a one trick pony when it came to WSC’s med­ical his­to­ry! But he was much more: an effer­ves­cent, inde­fati­ga­ble, delight­ful, gen­er­ous, and per­sua­sive pro­mot­er of Win­ston Spencer Churchill. Best of all he was a nice guy. No memo­r­i­al should omit John’s per­son­al­i­ty and accom­plish­ments. —War­ren F. Kim­ball, John Island, South Car­oli­na 


*Churchill was quot­ing from “The Last Leap,” by Adam Lind­say Gor­don (1833-1870)


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