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Published: Monday, 1/16/2006

The smile and the handshake live on

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mary Evelyn Mathieu has never forgotten Sept. 22, 1967, when she stood face to face with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a stage in a crowded gymnasium at Scott High School.

The petite teenager, who had recently arrived in Toledo from Alabama with other family members, was the winner of a black history essay contest put on by the Toledo branch NAACP. Her prize was a $25 savings bond.

But it was the smile and handshake from Mr. King who was slain by an assassin more than six months later that were the prize she has treasured ever since.

I do remember how handsome he was, said Ms. Mathieu, who turns 55 today, the day after Mr. King s birthday. I don t remember the speech, per se. I remember taking a picture with him and shaking hands with a lot of other people. He was my mentor before I ever met him.

I didn t wash my hand for a week, she joked.

Ms. Mathieu, now a senior auditor with the U.S. Department for Defense in Inglewood, Calif., said in a telephone interview last week that the brief meeting with Mr. King was the highlight of her time in Toledo and something that has always influenced her.

Mr. King s speech, in front of an estimated 3,500 packing the hot school gymnasium, was part of his only visit to Toledo, according to news reports. But there are only a few pictures and memorabilia remaining of that speech and visit here by the Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights leader.

He just smiled and told me, congratulations, said Ms. Mathieu, whose maiden name is Hutcherson. He had this wonderful smile. It was a day I will never forget.

The joy of meeting Mr. King would turn into heartbreak the following April when Mr. King was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The hotel has been turned into a museum.

I remember we were in class when we found out, Ms. Mathieu said. I started crying. We all were crying. He brought a lot of pride and respect for blacks, and now he was gone. We haven t had anyone of that caliber to look up to and the way we did him.

I did a scrapbook of all the memorabilia I collected [about Mr. King], Ms. Mathieu said. They wanted it at school the following year to display, and I never got it back. Now I don t have any of it. I don t even have our picture.

Ms. Mathieu went on to graduate from Scott High School and earned her bachelor s degree in social work from the University of Toledo in 1975 before moving out to California with a girlfriend she met in college.

She was hired by the Internal Revenue Service and returned to school for additional education. She has spent the last 28 years with the Department of Defense.

She said she believes African-Americans are still feeling the effect of losing such a charismatic and inspirational leader.

I think blacks would have been further along today if he would have lived, Ms. Mathieu said. I think we re still suffering from the result of his death. I believe things would have been different for blacks today.

Robert Smith, executive director of the African American Legacy Project, a local non-profit working to archive black history in northwest Ohio, said Ms. Mathieu s eyewitness account of Mr. King s visit to Toledo is important because it helps fill in some of the blanks of African-American history in Toledo.

He said he hopes to contact her soon, not only about her experience on Mr. King s visit but about the climate in Toledo during that time as well.

Being able to record even the smallest bit of history allows us to build a brighter and truer picture of our culture, our community, and our collective history, Mr. Smith said. Everything is important. Her first-person account is very important because it validates and substantiates our history in a personal way.

There is a whole emotional side you can only get through personal and eyewitness accounts. [African-American] history has been historically oral anyway.

Contact Clyde Hughes at: chughes@theblade.com or 419-724-6095.



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