By George Mauzy
He may have never pitched Jell-O pudding or starred in his own TV sitcom, but John S. Mattox, founder and curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio, will nonetheless feel special when he accepts an honorary doctor of public service degree Saturday from Ohio University.
The university conducts two undergraduate commencement ceremonies. It will present Mattox's degree at the 2 p.m. ceremony for graduates of the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education, and Health and Human Services, and Honors Tutorial College. Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King, an Ohio University alumnus, will receive an honorary doctor of communication degree at the 9:30 a.m. ceremony for graduates of the College of Business, College of Fine Arts, Regional Higher Education, Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Scripps College of Communication and University College.
"I was both humbled and appreciative when I heard that Ohio University wanted to present me with an honorary doctor of public service degree," Mattox said. "I thought only people like Bill Cosby received these. It shows that if you are in the right place at the right time and you do the right things, you might just get recognized."
Mattox, 72, said he's flattered to be honored, but being active in the community is only natural for him.
"I decided early on in life that I was going to do something that stood out," Mattox said. "I tried to be aggressive by taking on leadership roles in the community and never looked for anything in return. I just felt good doing it."
Known for his affable personality, Mattox is a member of the Ohio University Eastern Campus Coordinating Council, co-chair of the university's African American Cultural Committee and a vital contributor to the Department of African American Studies' African American Presence in the Ohio River Valley research project. The grant-funded multimedia project is documenting the contributions of people of color to the history and development of Appalachia. He also funds an annual non-restricted $500 scholarship.
A native of Raleigh, N.C., Mattox has been active in dozens of local and national organizations since moving to his wife Rosalind's hometown of Flushing in eastern Ohio in 1973. In fact, the Underground Railroad Museum shares its building with A Special Wish Foundation, an organization for which Mattox serves as national chairperson and National Board of Governors member.
Accolades are nothing new for Mattox, a retired insurance agent. Among other honors, he has received Belmont County Tourism Person of the Year recognition, the West Virginia Education Association's Effie Mayhan Brown Award and Community Builder Awards from the cities of Steubenville and Flushing. He also has served as a board member for various companies and organizations, including Harrison County Hospital, Belmont County Correctional Institution Community Board and Bank One in Wheeling, W.Va.
John A. Townsend, an attorney from the Pittsburgh area, said he nominated his friend for the honor because Mattox frequently mentions how much he loves Ohio University and appreciates the opportunity to work with faculty, staff and students.
"From the time I met him, I realized that he was a genuine human being with no ego," Townsend said. "I decided it was time for him to be recognized for all the work he has done to help people in any way he can and for his efforts to teach children and others more about American history."
Mattox is best known for his work with the Underground Railroad Museum, which displays more than 30,000 items related to the Underground Railroad and slavery. Keys to slave pens, books, reward posters, slave collars, bills of sale and maps from the trans-Atlantic slave trade are included in the collection. The most popular items with visitors, Mattox said, are a leather whip with small spiked balls called the "cat of nine tales," a replica of a slave's severed hand and a life-sized carving of an African being captured.
Despite the allure of the museum, Mattox fills his traveling trunk with museum artifacts and travels to cities and schools across the region more than 100 times a year. He also gives special tours of notable Underground Railroad sites in the region.
"All of my presentations are tailored to my audience, and I am always careful with how I explain this part of history to children, because I want to stimulate them and get them to ask questions," Mattox said. "I try to educate people on the history of slavery because it is American history, not just black history."
Mattox said his daughter, Suzanne, an Ohio University graduate, recently said something that makes Saturday's presentation all the more special.
"My daughter told my wife on the phone the other day, 'I'm just so proud of my daddy,'" he said. "Coming from an educated person like her, that made me feel real good. You know, I'm satisfied with life, and I don't need to do a whole lot of other things, but this (honorary degree) really topped it off."
The Underground Railroad Museum is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday or by appointment. For more information, visit www.ugrrf.org.