To some in the 4-H community, Donald Ray "Billy" Matthews was Mr 4-H. Matthews, who was born in Micanopy in 1907 and raised in Alachua County, was an active 4-H member as a young man. He attended school in Hawthorne, and a “Great Floridian” plaque honoring him is on display at the Hawthorne Museum and Cultural Center
As he got older he assumed greater leadership roles with the 4-H program, eventually serving ten summers as an assistant 4-H club director and director of the summer camping program.
Matthews went on to study at the University of Florida, where he served as student body president and president of Florida Blue Key. He studied English and Spanish.
He graduated from UF in 1929 and taught school in Leesburg, Fla., and Orlando, Fla., from 1929-35. He served as a high school principal in Newberry, Fla., in 1935 and 1936, acting as the assistant state 4-H agent during the summers of 1928-38.
At 4-H summer camp is where his antics became legendary. Melda Bassett, widow of Matthews’ good friend and fellow 4-H member Wilmer Bassett, shares a story that shows Matthew’s personality. “Billy and Wilmer could be a real handful together. They loved to play pranks on the kids. Usually at the end of camp Billy would get the 4-H’ers together and say he was going to hypnotize Wilmer,” she said.
The prank included visual effects. “Those two would ham it up like Wilmer was walking into the water in a hypnotic trance until he was up to his nose with the kids screaming, ‘Stop! He’s going to drown!’ I still hear from kids who tell me they thought he was really going to drown and how funny it was when they realized it was just a prank,” said Bassett.
Matthews was also a member of the Florida House of Representatives in 1935, showing his political ambitions early in life. He joined the administrative staff at the University of Florida from 1936-1942. He left his work at UF to join the military. He served in the U. S. Army from 1942-46 during the Second World War and was discharged as a captain in the infantry division. He returned to the University of Florida and earned a master’s degree in education in 1948.
He worked in administration with the University until 1952. He was the first director of the Florida Union on campus, now known as the J. Wayne Reitz Union. He also became the first director of alumni affairs for the University of Florida. His took a new step in his promising career by turning his attention back toward government service.
Matthews was elected as a Democrat to the 83rd U.S. Congress and he served Florida on Capitol Hill for six subsequent terms. He was a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the House Committee on Agriculture, and the House Committee on Appropriations. He sponsored legislation to ensure the location of the state’s entomology laboratory at the University of Florida and the construction of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Gainesville.
Florida 4-H members visiting the UF campus, can visit a room at the J. Wayne Reitz Union which is filled with photographs from his days in Washington, DC as a congressman. His tenure in Congress gave him high visibility and influence in our nation’s capital city, but Matthews never forgot his rural roots and his involvement with the Florida 4-H program.
Congressman Matthews shared his knowledge, skills and talents with many 4-Hers. His political career made him a role model for young people, as he helped youth develop real-life skills and gain experience they would need in the world. He visited the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland during the National 4-H Conference, sharing his respect and admiration for 4-H with the delegates.
According to Bassett, Matthews was “Mr. 4-H” in Florida. “Because Billy loved working with young Floridians, he served ten summers as assistant club director,” said Bassett. “His political career made him a role model for many Florida 4-H youth as he helped kids develop “real-life” skills and gain the experience they would need to succeed as adults.”
Following his service as a congressman, he worked as a consultant and administrator for the Rural Community Development Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1967-69.
“He always remembered his association with Florida 4-H with great pride and humility,” said Bassett. “He was an outstanding citizen who served his country, his state, and Florida 4-H.”
Throughout the years Matthews remained active in his community by holding membership in the Lions Club, Kiwanis International, Rotary International, Gainesville Exchange Club, National Association of College Unions, Florida Council for the Blind, and the First Presbyterian Church. His wife established a scholarship through the University of Florida Foundation to honor his memory and help UF students employed at the J. Wayne Reitz Union.
Matthews became political science instructor at Santa Fe Community College from 1969-77 and remained as a resident of Gainesville, Florida until his death in 1997 at the age of 90.