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Philanthropic alumnus quietly gave back to community

| Gary Johnson

Don and Leatrice Mathison were an unassuming couple who never had children, living quietly in a small, modest home on Eau Claire’s west side for more than five decades. 

Leatrice and Don Mathison

Leatrice and Don Mathison

It was only after Don’s death in June at age 93 (Leatrice had passed away in 2016) that the Chippewa Valley community learned the Mathisons had accumulated significant wealth through wise stock market investments. People also didn’t know the couple gave away all their money to organizations that could do the most good for the most people.

“I don’t think during their lifetimes Don really wanted to call attention to what they were doing,” says Kimera Way, president of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation. “They were just very, very modest about their philanthropy.”

UW-Eau Claire was a primary benefactor of the Mathisons’ generosity. Since Don first gave his alma mater $100 in 1979, the couple’s accelerated giving rose to more than $1 million.

“Every time we would meet with them, they were literally the most gracious people,” Way says. “They represent so much of what it means to be a Blugold, that life of service. They believed in education deeply and felt their great gift was using their resources to invest in the future.

“We’re just so humbled and grateful they felt so strongly about UW-Eau Claire that they wanted some of their philanthropy to be used to support students in their education.”

Don graduated from Eau Claire State Teachers College (now UW-Eau Claire) in 1949, majoring in mathematics and physical science. He taught middle school in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire before becoming an administrator in the Eau Claire school district. He was the first principal at South Junior High School, where he served until his retirement in 1989.

Leatrice worked in the Eau Claire school district for 45 years, retiring in 1992 as an administrative secretary in the district office.

“They worked in education their whole lives so had a deep appreciation for the power of education,” Way says.

The Mathisons were modest donors to UW-Eau Claire until 2007 when the couple contacted the Foundation to set up a nursing scholarship. They established the Donald and Leatrice Mathison Nursing Scholarship that offers five $5,000 scholarships for nursing majors who show promise in the nursing profession and academic achievement.

The couple had great appreciation for the nursing profession and how nurses benefited the community, Way says.

“They loved hearing from the students knowing they were having an impact on someone else’s life,” Way says. “It was not about them; it was about the people they were helping.”

With funds from the Mathisons’ estate, UW-Eau Claire plans to offer additional assistance to students: Two $5,000 scholarships in the nurse practitioner program and two $5,000 scholarships for math education majors.

Helping others was part of Don’s life. Eau Claire resident Cindy Dahl remembers being a young mother with a newborn baby when Don hired her as a librarian at Central Junior High School in 1978. He encouraged her to obtain her master’s degree to increase her earning power and improve her life.

“He was a mentor to me right off the bat,” says Dahl, who did obtain her master’s degree in media technology. “He had high expectations and you didn’t want to disappoint him. He ran a tight ship and you wanted to be part of that ship. I can’t tell you enough nice things about him.”

Dahl and the Mathisons remained close for decades. In later years, Dahl had a power of attorney for Mathison and was the executor of the Mathisons’ estate. Dahl assisted Don in finding organizations that could best benefit from donations from the Mathisons.

In addition to UW-Eau Claire, L.E. Phillips Senior Center, the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library and Beaver Creek Reserve all received six-figure donations from the Mathisons. The couple also gave money to nonprofits like Feed My People Food Bank, Sojourner House homeless shelter and the Community Table.

“I think they purposely chose to support causes that impacted many people, not one or two and not just for today, but for the years to come,” says Mary Pica-Anderson, the senior center's executive director. “It was definitely given for the community of Eau Claire to benefit from. It was a real testament that they loved this community and wanted to see it be successful and thrive.”

Don and Leatrice were regulars at the senior center, Don working out in the exercise room and Leatrice enjoying bridge and other card games.

The Mathison family had a history with the senior center in Eau Claire as Don’s brother Lee was integral in raising funds to build the center. Don followed his brother’s work, donating money to help alleviate a parking shortage at the center and eventually to assist with an expansion project.

Don and Leatrice donated a total of $600,000 to the senior center. The 4,000-square-foot fitness center that is the centerpiece of the expansion project will be named the Donald and Leatrice Mathison Fitness Center. The nearby Mathison Dining Hall is dedicated in honor of Lee and Ruth Mathison.

“Don was adamant about being very private; he didn’t want people to know,” Pica-Anderson says. “Don was just an amazing, quiet, observant and humble man.”

After Leatrice’s death, Don approached officials at Beaver Creek Reserve, an environmental education and recreational nature center east of Eau Claire, to inquire about projects that could be completed with a donation. When Erik Keisler, executive director of the reserve, listed several ongoing and wish-list projects, Don said he would fund them all, including a new solar installation at the center. 

The $400,000 donation was the largest ever to Beaver Creek Reserve and “changed Beaver Creek forever,” Keisler says.

“We are lucky if we encounter one person who will change our lives for the better in this world,” Keisler says. “Don’s generous gift has changed mine and I will be forever grateful. He has also left a lasting impact on the staff and members at Beaver Creek for generations to come.”