Athens, Ala. – For Jan Matthews, it was about unfinished business. In 1984, as Matthews was visiting East Limestone High School to watch her friends graduate, East Limestone Principal Dennis Black challenged her. Matthews recalls Black coming over to her and handing her the cover to the diploma. “Get what belongs inside of it”, he said.
You see, growing up a member of the Mayberry Family in Athens living on Mayberry Drive, life was not easy. However, Matthews’s parents, with a 3rd and 7th grade education, poured into their children a sense of who God is and giving back. Matthews said not graduating with her classmates was a disappointment to her parents. She said, “My parents greatest dream was for their oldest child to graduate from high school with their peers.” With what appeared to be a failure, Matthews said that she truly wanted to give up.
Fortunately, what Matthews wasn’t known for was being a quitter. In the early 1980’s, Matthews helped integrate Johnson Junior High School. In the 9th grade she played basketball for Johnson and hit the winning shot to beat the East Limestone High School girls team. Shortly after, she began attending East Limestone High School. Matthews was one of the first black homecoming queens at East Limestone High School. Matthews was also a successful member of East Limestone’s track team, coming in third in the state.
The embarrassment of being pulled out of the graduation rehearsal line back in 1984 had a powerful affect on Matthews. Of that experience, she said, “I kept hearing a voice in my ear this will make you stronger.” On that day, the late Jimmy Drake told Matthews he would issue a waiver for her to graduate with peers if all the teachers would consent. At that time, Mr. Owen Griggs and Mr. Donnie Fleming would not sign the form; however, they reassured her she would be greater from it. Matthews went on to say, “They were right.” Accepting Mr. Black’s challenge, as well as the challenge of Mr. Griggs and Mr. Fleming, Matthews went on to summer school and received her high school diploma. She went on graduate from Calhoun Community, Athens State University as well as Nova Southeastern University. Matthews went to work full-time for NASA and decided to find a way to give back to her community. That is how “Unsung Heroes Scholarship Fund and Community Unsung Heroes” was born.
Matthews said, Unsung Heroes Scholarship Fund and Community Unsung Heroes serves as a reminder that “something great comes from lemons.” Matthews wants to remind people that there are many “hidden jewels” right here in Athens, Alabama, “waiting to be brought into that marvelous light.”
Matthews hopes everyone can come to this special event. The Unsung Heroes Scholarship Fund and Community Unsung Heroes banquet is a free event. She asks that everyone help spread the word of this event. With her personal experiences, Matthews’s has a final encouragement for everyone. “Let’s love on our people in the community inspiring them to do just a little bit more.”