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Those who knew Robert Matthews Jr. best say he always embraced the winds of change with grace and dignity, particularly when the longtime Shelby County attorney and former public servant returned to civilian life after World War II.
Matthews, whose career included a stint as Kentucky Attorney General and a just-missed attempt at lieutenant governor, died Saturday at Crestview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. He was 87.
Serving as a lieutenant with the U.S. Navy during World War II, Matthews survived a bombing attack that killed many of his fellow crew members, his brother, Bill Matthews, said.
“He happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Bill Matthews, who along with his brother, Ben, are surviving siblings. “He didn’t talk much about his World War II experiences. But it did affect his outlook on life. He realized life can be very fleeting.”
Matthews’ post-war life might not have included its Kentucky highlights but for an automobile accident that severely injured his father, the late attorney Robert Matthews Sr., who was also mayor of Shelbyville from 1933-1952.
Matthews and his wife, Betty, were content in living and working on a family ranch near Amarillo, Texas, when they received news of the accident just before the Christmas holidays in 1952.
“I think we might have stayed in Texas,” said Betty Matthews, who met her future husband of 65 years when both attended the College of William & Mary. “But his father needed him.”
Matthews returned to Shelby County to help out with his father’s law practice but eventually became involved in state government – first appointed as Commissioner of Finance in 1960, and later, elected as Attorney General in 1963.
He narrowly lost to Wendell Ford in the 1967 race for lieutenant governor, an election that featured multiple recounts of votes.
“If he was bitterly disappointed, I never saw it, and I never heard him talk about it,” said his son, Alan Matthews, an 8-year member of the Shelbyville City Council entering Tuesday’s election. “He just moved on with his life.”
Helping him move on from public service was an offer to join the Louisville law firm now known as Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald, where he became a senior partner.
“It was a blessing for us,” Betty Matthews said. “He worked there until he retired a few years ago.”
Matthews is remembered by others as a kind, decent man.
“I knew him well; he was a very nice gentleman,” Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said. “I was really saddened to hear of his passing.”
Shelby County Fiscal Court Magistrate Cordy Armstrong also said he knew Matthews well.
“He was a good person and a very well-respected citizen,” he said.
In addition to family and career, tennis was another source of pride for Matthews, who played the sport in college. Locally, he won multiple titles and was awarded the T.H. Byrd Cup in 1957 for capturing the Shelby County singles championship three consecutive years.
“Mom and Dad were both good players,” Alan Matthews said.
Bill Matthews said he never saw his older brother get upset about anything.
“I never saw him get mad; I never heard him say a harsh word,” he said. “He had a great pleasantness about him, and a great sense of humor. He had infinite patience and displayed great equanimity: He made you feel good. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old.”
Alan Matthews said his father was always a “Southern gentleman.”
“He conducted himself with dignity and integrity at all times,” he said. “He taught me that there were different ways to do things, that there was a right way and a wrong way. He was adamant: You do things the right way.”
But perhaps Matthews’ greatest legacy was summed up by his wife.
“He loved people,” Betty Matthews said.
Sentinel-News Reporter Lisa King contributed to this report.