Nation’s oldest man memorialized at Palm Desert Mass


By Natalie Romano

Courtesy Desert Sun

PALM DESERT—The life of the nation’s oldest man, Clarence “Larry” Matthews, was celebrated at Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert with a Mass of Resurrection on Sept. 2.

 Matthews, a Coachella Valley benefactor who rose from the poverty of the Great Depression, passed away at the age of 111 in his Indian Wells home on July 22 following a stroke. Larry had attended St. Francis of Assisi in La Quinta with his late wife Kay and had generously donated to the parish. Relatives say Larry leaves behind a legacy of an open heart and an open wallet.

 “After he died, I took his address book and talked to hundreds of people,” says Stephen Matthews. “It was the same theme each time. My dad was the most giving, gracious, elegant man.” 

 Larry’s long history of generosity dates back to the Depression. While many adults in his hometown of Oakland, California struggled for employment, 16-year-old Larry graduated early and found work. His first job was as a skating stock boy (the wheels made the work go faster) at a department store. In time, he found his niche was numbers and he became credit manager. Larry found love, too, got married and still supported his parents and siblings. He waited until after the Depression to have two children of his own. Stephen says that didn’t stop him from helping family members in need.

 “He supported two of his sisters when they were older. He was a hero. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

 Stephen was there in his dad’s final moments of life. He says he witnessed glowing orbs above his father.

 “I knelt down beside him and put my arm around his head and talked into his ear. I said, ‘Dad, the angels are here to take you to be with your mom and dad and your brothers and sisters and all your best friends in the world’….Ten minutes later he died.”

 Those near and dear to Larry say they’re still feeling the loss. Kristine Kauffman was his caregiver for the last six years.

 “I really loved that guy,” she says. “I was honored to do it. He was a special man.”

 And the oldest man in the U.S. for over one year, according to the Gerontology Research Group. Following his passing, the nation’s oldest man is now Richard Overton of Austin, Texas. Overton, also the country’s oldest war veteran, was born on May 11, 1906, just ten days after Larry. GRG says both men had the proper proof of age to garner the title. Larry landed his just two days after turning 110. While he may be the only supercentenarian in his family, there’s lots of longevity. His last living sister is 106 and resides in Northern California. Most of his remaining siblings and mother lived into their 90’s. Stephen says after decades of ranching and the arthritis that comes with it, he doesn’t want to live as long as dad.

 “If I can live to be 90 and still ride my horses, I’m good to go,” laughs the 76 year old.

 A career change into construction development brought Larry to Orange County; retirement brought him to Riverside County. There he enjoyed the local pastime of golf followed by dancing lessons with Kay. Longtime friend and neighbor Maria Woelfl recalls the parties.

 “My sister came from Germany for a visit. They played a polka and Larry and I danced for them. Everyone laughed and we had so much fun. He was just a very kind, friendly man that I loved dearly and miss very much.”

 Later in life, Larry took pleasure in other things, namely; good food.

 “I encouraged him to eat healthy but I also wanted him to enjoy himself. He loved pound cake, he loved Bailey’s. He loved meatloaf and ribs,” divulges Kauffman.

 But all the ribs in the world didn’t erase the years and the reality of outliving so many loved ones.

 “Sometimes he’d say he’s lived too long. ‘Everybody is gone, I’m just getting lonely, I miss my friends,’ ” reveals Woelfl. “He would get a little melancholy then we’d cheer up and play gin together.” 

 Another mood booster; visits from Father Howard Lincoln, Pastor of Sacred Heart, Palm Desert.

 “I think Father Lincoln gave him some insights and some comfort that he never had,” says Stephen.

 Fr. Lincoln presided over the Mass of Resurrection and tried to extend that comfort to Matthews’ remaining family, which includes seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

 “Anything Larry ever heard about heaven here on this earth absolutely pales in comparison to what he’s experiencing,” Fr. Lincoln said. “Because for Larry, and this is not being corny, this is truth, Larry has never been as alive as he is right now. And with God as his friend and heaven as his home, the day of death for Larry became sweeter than the day of birth.” 

Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.