Tom Matthews has helped mentor student leaders for more than 50 years.
Tom Matthews gazes through the window of his second-floor office in the MacVittie College Union, taking in the majestic Genesee Valley. It’s a view he has enjoyed thousands of times during his 51 years at the College. Many alumni remember Matthews as the ultimate mentor who could identify their hidden leadership talents and gently provide guidance on how to empower themselves toward success.
On his shelves is an array of items reflecting his half-century of college service. He has books on leadership (including one he authored), and several of the more than 38,000 student journals he’s read about their leadership training experiences at Geneseo. Also, there are mementos from the countless service trips he’s organized and led, and memorabilia from his days as activities director at Geneseo, which include bringing performers like Billy Joel, The Byrds, and Jay Leno to campus, and speakers such as Gloria Steinem and Hank Aaron. The items in his office represent the passion Matthews has brought to serving students, alumni and fellow staff and faculty in a number of capacities, most recently as associate dean of leadership and service.
Geneseo has been a perfect place for me,” says Matthews, who is among the few to cross the 50-year service mark at the College. “I had no idea I would be here this long nor that I would stay in one place for my entire career, but working at Geneseo quickly became a passion because I discovered that our students were creative and wanted to learn.”
Matthews epitomizes community at Geneseo. He is universally respected for his accomplishments in student life; his sage guidance as a former officer in United University Professions (UUP), the faculty and professional union; and his successes in leadership education and service-learning.
Arguably, one of his most notable contributions is the development of the highly regarded GOLD program — Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development. Through GOLD, students earn various levels of certificates based on their involvement in leadership training, personal development courses, service-learning experiences and volunteer work.
Matthews launched GOLD in 2000 by inviting faculty, staff, alumni and community members to teach leadership courses to complement students’ academic coursework. GOLD quickly became a model leadership program, garnering numerous awards and significant interest from other campuses, including many from outside of the country. Thousands of students have taken GOLD workshops over the years, and the program now offers more than 400 leadership and life skills workshops each year.
Common to Matthews’ endeavors is a steadfast focus on community, and he clearly practices the leadership skills he teaches in bringing people together for the greater good.
Tom is a champion of an educational co-curricular experience that aligns well with the goals of a liberal education,” says Robert Bonfiglio, vice president for student and campus life. “The highly engaged student body and talented student leaders of Geneseo benefit today, and will benefit in the years to come, from programs that were originally conceived by Tom Matthews.”
Matthews graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh in 1964. He earned a master’s degree in student personnel at SUNY Albany followed by an internship at SUNY Fredonia, where he met his wife, Betsy. He worked two years in residence life at SUNY College at Brockport before coming to Geneseo in 1967. He later earned his doctorate in student personnel in higher education at the University of South Carolina.
Matthews spent more than 30 years as Geneseo’s director of student activities, but by 2000 a movement for leadership education was quickly emerging in higher education, and Matthews began writing and speaking more on the topic. He and Bonfiglio agreed that a formal leadership education and training program was essential for Geneseo students, and Matthews got the green light to move ahead.
I looked at the need, attended several conferences, developed relationships with leadership scholars and consultants, and immersed myself in the rapidly expanding world of leadership education,” says Matthews, who still sports his signature handlebar mustache he grew in the 1970s.
A key component of GOLD is the involvement of leader mentors, the students who volunteer their time to work with GOLD. Matthews says GOLD mentors are essential because of the size of the program, and it allows them to practice their leadership skills, which reinforces the learning process.
Reflecting on the person I was when I first came to Geneseo, I am certainly a different person today, largely because of GOLD,” says Rachel Moore ’16, a second-year dental student at the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine, who served as a GOLD mentor.
For the writing assignment Moore had for a dental school interview, Moore was asked to write about someone who had greatly impacted society. Instead of writing about a highly visible world leader, Moore wrote about Matthews.
I wrote about Tom’s ability to help unite a campus and further unite Geneseo students with the Geneseo community and beyond,” says Moore.
Jennifer Delcourt ’08 also served as a GOLD leader mentor but said she never considered herself to be a leader until she was given the opportunity. She currently coordinates a program for the Wake County Human Services Department in North Carolina to increase the number of elementary and secondary school students who safely walk and bike to school.
Tom’s encouragement and suggestion that I apply to be a leader-mentor indicated faith in my leadership ability, an ability I didn’t know I had,” says Delcourt. “These experiences made me stronger and more confident in myself, and without them, I may not have sought to continue my service through AmeriCorps, which later led me to my current career in public health.”
Melissa Graham Kuberka ’13 was a leader mentor for GOLD, a member of the varsity basketball team and a resident assistant.
Being a mentor took me out of my comfort zone in a way that the other positions did not,” says Kuberka, who is now the head women’s basketball coach at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. “When speaking to my team, I use quotes from GOLD workshops or specific lessons from them.”
Matthews had a knack for identifying students with leadership potential long before he developed the GOLD program and now regularly brings alumni back to campus to present GOLD programs. Many worked closely with him as GOLD leader mentors or assisted him during his years as activities director. Matthews asked Dan Ward ’87 in his junior year if he would consider running for Activities Commission chairman. He took the job, which he said changed the trajectory of his life.
I look back now with both gratitude and awe at how Tom helped me discover skills and strengths,” says Ward, associate partner with the management consulting firm Sia Partners in Charlotte, N.C. “The opportunity to manage, lead and coach others … helped prepare me for professional life. Tom was always there to encourage, guide and listen.”
Fourteen years after Ward graduated, Matthews contacted him for input on the GOLD program he was developing, and Ward returned to campus in 2001 to lead his first GOLD workshop, the first of many he has presented over the years on the importance of leadership in business and industry. Other alumni regularly return to campus for workshops focused on such topics as leadership in the nonprofit world, women in leadership, leadership in science, performing arts administration, and government service.
I ask our returning alumni to connect their Geneseo experience to their life story,” says Matthews. “The information they share and the relationships they build with our students is a big win for all involved.”
The vision of GOLD from the outset was to incorporate service into the program, and in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Matthews and community leaders had the idea of creating a college/community organization called Livingston CARES. The organization was composed of students, alumni and community members who would travel to storm-devastated areas at their own expense to help with residential cleanup and restoration, and offer other services with its humanitarian mission. Since then, Livingston CARES has completed 54 service trips — with nearly 1,100 volunteers — to the Gulf Coast and downstate New York regions hit by Super Storm Sandy, including Staten Island. Upcoming trips are scheduled to help people recently hit by hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas.
Ward is among alumni involved with Livingston CARES and joined a 2015 service trip to the Gulf Coast.
I strongly believe community work experience is extremely meaningful and rewarding,” says Ward. “Volunteering with students through Livingston CARES elevated my faith in humanity.”
Delcourt went on the first Livingston CARES service trip to Mississippi. She also became a trip coordinator and went on four additional service trips.
“They were defining aspects of my Geneseo experience,” says Delcourt.
Even though he is known most recently for his visionary work in leadership education and service-learning initiatives, Matthews spent some 30 years leading student activities at Geneseo.
I had gained a lot of experience as a student before I applied for the Geneseo position — president of the senior class, resident assistant, campus newspaper editor, etc. — and that helped me get the job,” says Matthews. “Res life was a great place for me to start my career. I appreciate our res life staff very much because I know what it’s like to get that knock on the door in the middle of the night.”
Matthews came to Geneseo during a period of national political upheaval when protests were frequently erupting on college campuses against the Vietnam War.
They were challenging times, to be sure,” says Matthews. “Then-President Bob MacVittie was sensitive to the times. He listened to those of us with ideas on dealing with protest and he managed it well. Those were great learning experiences and toughened me as an administrator to handle situations but doing so in a fair manner.”
Matthews was advising the student government body at the time (the Student Senate) and helped initiate a restructuring of the organization into the Student Association, which included the formation of an Activities Commission, comprising students focused on engaging entertainment, speakers and other activities programming. The successful Limelight Series also emerged from the commission.
Matthews and the Activities Commission got quickly involved in booking top-notch campus entertainment, and Matthews became a regional leader in the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA), later serving as chair of the organization. He was part of an early NACA project that encouraged colleges to book relatively unknown groups on record labels in return for favorable booking fees later if their popularity soared. It resulted in Matthews booking numerous well-known groups and individuals in the 70s and 80s including Aerosmith, who played in the MacVittie Ballroom for $500; Chicago, who performed two shows in Schrader Gymnasium; and the Martha Graham Dance Company, who performed in Brodie Hall.
He also booked numerous individual performers during that period including comedians George Carlin, Steve Martin and Paula Poundstone; singer James Taylor, and the late singers Pete Seeger and Ray Charles. He also booked well-known speakers such as the late activists Abbie Hoffman and Julian Bond; the late President Gerald Ford, who was retired when he visited; Gloria Steinem; Bernadette Devlin; G. Gordon Liddy; the late Shirley Chisholm; Ralph Nader; and many others.
Dan Neverett ’70 worked with Matthews in the creation of the Activities Commission and served as a member. He recently retired as vice president of finance and administrative services of Western Nevada College after serving as vice president for student and administrative affairs at Alfred State College. He is among many alumni who credit Matthews with cultivating their leadership talents, and helping to direct them toward successful careers.
“My 44 years in higher education probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Tom Matthews,” says Neverett, who received the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service award in 1994. “Tom didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. If he thought you could do something, even though you thought you couldn’t do it, Tom was there to say ‘I think you can do it and I’m here to back you up.’ He was a great motivator.”
Successful network television producer and writer Glenn Gordon Caron ’75 received encouragement as a student from Matthews to expand a campus film program, an area of great interest to Caron when he arrived at Geneseo. Caron and four others built a diverse program called KINO Geneseo that expanded film showings on campus to four nights a week and included American independent, French and avant-garde productions. In addition, Matthews found funding for Caron and fellow student Fred Pytlak ’73 to make a recruitment film for the College.
“Tom empirically believed that young people could be trusted with money and resources, that their taste matters, and in some ways were in the vanguard of what was happening, and he thought Geneseo should cultivate that,” said Caron. “He had a velvet touch. You didn’t feel him leading you to something. He had a way to make you feel it was your own decision.”<
Caron, co-founder of Picturemaker Productions, has had a highly successful career in television and is best known for creating the hit network programs “Moonlighting” in the 1980s and “Medium” in the 2000s. He has been executive producer and writer for numerous episodes of the currently running CBS drama “Bull.” His professional credits include several Emmy Award nominations for writing and producing.
“I do believe my life would not be the same if I had not encountered Tom along the way,” says Caron, who received a Geneseo Medal of Distinction in 2011. “He authentically enjoyed helping other people find themselves and flex muscle they hadn’t had the opportunity to flex.”
Bill Mandicott ’76, assistant vice president for student and community involvement at Frostburg State University in Maryland, had a leadership role at Geneseo with the Activities Commission and is in awe of the leadership skills Matthews has imparted on Geneseo alumni around the world.
“The guidance I received from Tom Matthews has a lasting impression to this day on the work I do,” says Mandicott. “He gave us the authority as students to dream, to make mistakes and to build on our experiences.”<
Matthews also was handling other campus issues during his time as activities director, such as how to fund student activity programs after students discovered that activity fees were voluntary. He also was addressing the legal entry of alcohol onto campus. Matthews created an alcohol control board at the College and oversaw the opening of the Rathskeller bar — open to students only — in the basement of Letchworth Hall, which operated until New York’s legal drinking age was raised to 21 in 1985. Geneseo Foundation Emeritus Board Chair Kevin Gavagan ’75 worked as a bartender at the Rathskeller for four years and was the student manager his senior year.
“It was an amazing place, and many Geneseo alumni have fond memories of gathering there,” said Gavagan. “Most everyone was 18 and could frequent the bar. Not only could you get a beer for 25 cents but on Fridays, you could get one with a sub as part of your meal plan, but, frankly, many of the subs never got unwrapped.”
Matthews took a leave during his time in student activities to earn his doctorate. He returned to his duties as activities director in 1992 and again took time off to serve as UUP’s statewide vice president for professionals, which required frequent trips to Albany. Among other duties, Matthews served as chief negotiator for UUP in two union contract negotiations with the state.
“I was probably on every SUNY campus three or four times while I held that office,” he says.
It’s difficult for Matthews to select his fondest memories of being at Geneseo — he has so many — but says the development of Livingston CARES has been his greatest personal accomplishment.
“We do these things so students can learn and have life-changing experiences,” says Matthews, “so they can learn and grow, so they can develop a sense of community.”
Through the Decades: The Career of Tom Matthews
1967: Tom begins his career at Geneseo.
1970s: As student activities director, Tom brings performers and speakers such as Aerosmith, Chicago, Steve Martin and Abbie Hoffman to campus.
1970-78: Tom serves in leadership roles for the National Association of Campus Activities, including as chairperson from 1975-77.
1992: Tom serves as the statewide vice president for United University Professions and was a chief negotiator for contracts.
2000: Tom creates the student program, Geneseo Opportunities for Leadership Development, which has earned many accolades and is a role model for other institutions.
2012: The GOLD program continues to bring alumni and others to campus, and grows to offer more than 400 leadership and life skills workshops to students each year.
2018: Tom marks 51 years of service at Geneseo.