Larry Matheny: A Centre luminary who exemplified virtue to others

Editor’s note: In this thoughtful tribute to their friend and colleague, Dan Stroup and Bill Garriott reflect on the profound influence Larry Matheny had on his students and the entire Centre College community. “Larry Matheny was a dear friend, counsellor and mentor throughout my teaching career,” says Stroup, “and much of what I learned about teaching and about my discipline I learned in the Senior Seminar courses we taught together.” Adds Bill Garriott: “Larry once said to me, ‘If you are going to call yourself a professor, you need to have something to profess.’ And that he did. Both in and out of the classroom, he taught all of us what ‘the life of the mind’ is all about.”

Larry Robert Matheny, 76, died Jan. 4, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. Matheny taught government at Centre from 1966 to 2005, when he retired as the John Marshall Harlan Professor Emeritus of Government. He was born in Charleston, W. Va., on June 19, 1939, and earned both a B.A. with honors and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Matheny joined David Hughes in 1966 as one of two members of Centre’s government program that rapidly grew to four members by 1970. While his primary teaching responsibilities were in the fields of political philosophy and American political thought, he taught a wide variety of courses across the discipline.

He also was instrumental in implementing the “New Curriculum” adopted in 1967, and, along with Hughes, effectively created the government program at Centre College. They designed the first Public Affairs class and the first Senior Seminar in government and also organized one of the first off-campus programs—in Washington—offered in the new winter term.

During his 39-year teaching career, hundreds of students were enlightened and inspired by his teaching in such courses as Western Political Theory, American Political Thought, the American Founding, the Crisis of the Union, Politics in Literature, Senior Seminar and many others. Matheny took several groups of students with him to the British Isles for off-campus study during the winter term, and he also taught seminars in the British Studies at Oxford program on the theme of Britain in the Enlightenment.

In retirement, he was called back to teach on several occasions and was a regular member of Centre’s Summer Alumni College. He received the Kirk Award for Teaching Excellence, was recognized by Centre’s Omicron Delta Kappa Circle with the David F. Hughes Award for Excellence in Teaching and Service, and was recognized as a Distinguished Political Scientist by the Kentucky Political Science Association.

Louisville attorney John David Dyche ’82 speaks for all of Matheny’s former students when he observes, “Larry Matheny was a brilliant man and gifted teacher. His distinctive and incomparable lectures inspired generations of Centre students. Dr. Matheny’s influence on young minds and lives was profound.” Matheny was a true scholar—a learned person who continued to learn.

Associate Professor of English John Kinkade ’95 remembers the breadth of Matheny’s interests: “In the ’80s and ’90s, the library books had cards that you signed, so when you got a book off the shelf, you could see who had checked the book out before you.  If it was a serious work of literature, Matheny had always checked it out before you.” Associate Professor of Spanish Genny Ballard ’91 concurs. “Dr. Matheny made it clear that to become an expert, someone with ideas that matter, there are no shortcuts,” she says. “He absolutely loved the library and his passion for books was contagious. Throughout his whole life he led by example, showing us we should never stop learning. ”

For Matheny, teaching was always as much about his students as about his subject. According to Danville attorney Patrick McClure ’96, “Maybe his greatest power in the classroom was his ability to let you answer a question, state it back to you in his words, and let you leave thinking you were pretty smart.” Associate Vice President of Legal Affairs and Gift Planning Jamey Leahey ’92 adds: “We knew he cared deeply about each of us, and he made us want to push ourselves in our own learning. Larry Matheny demonstrated that wisdom and understanding are the goals, not mere knowledge.”

Again and again, his students’ comments demonstrate that Matheny’s influence extended far beyond giving them an understanding and appreciation of the texts. “He encouraged us to learn from great thinkers and writers, storing those ideas in our head in order to better interpret the world around us.  This is an idea that counted in my life and shaped who I am as a person,” notes Ballard. And Louisville attorney Annie Reed MacLean ’02 attests, “Dr. Matheny helped me understand, both by his personal example and through the subjects he taught, the worth of humanity; our universal aspirations.”

Those who taught with him valued not only his friendship but also the wisdom and humor that he brought to every conversation about academic matters both great and small. Frank B. and Virginia B. Hower Associate Professor of International Studies Lori Hartmann-Mahmud says, “What a great man, and so gracious.  He was always very supportive of me and my work, even when he was a little skeptical about things I taught (like gender courses).  He was willing to engage.  And what a mind he had.  I feel privileged to have known him.”

Larry Matheny was a student of the thought of Thomas Jefferson and a graduate of Mr. Jefferson’s University. It is altogether appropriate, then, to close with Jefferson’s statement of the goals that he set for the University of Virginia, purposes which Professor Matheny served so well and so faithfully at Centre throughout his four decades of teaching:

“To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend;
“To expound the principles and structure of government, the laws which regulate the intercourse of nations, those formed municipally for our own government, and a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another;
“To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order;
“And, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”

by Bill Garriott, Professor of Government, Emeritus and 
Dan Stroup, Pierce and Amelia Lively Professor of Government
January 6, 2015

A visitation for Professor Larry Matheny will be held Thursday, Jan. 7, from 5-8 p.m. at Preston-Pruitt-Spurlin Funeral Home at 331 South Fourth Street in Danville. While there is no service planned at this time, a memorial service may be scheduled at some future point. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested contributions to The Larry Matheny Scholarship Fund at Centre College.

By |2018-08-29T20:11:04-04:00January 6th, 2016|News|