Dr. Steven Gamble, Dr. Everett Frost, Dr. Robert Matheny and Dr. Jeff Elwell
Dr. Steven Gamble, Dr. Everett Frost, Dr. Robert Matheny and Dr. Jeff Elwell

The Eastern New Mexico University Foundation recently established the Robert L. Matheny and Sandra Hansen Matheny Endowed Scholarship. Named after ENMU's sixth president and his wife, the requirements include being a full-time student, having a 3.0 cumulative grade point average and being a freshman when the scholarship is awarded.

According to the ENMU Foundation, Dr. and Mrs. Matheny have been involved with Eastern for nearly 70 years. Although he is most well known as the University's first alumnus president from 1983-89, Dr. Matheny enrolled at Eastern in 1950 to earn his bachelor's degree and cherishes the legacy he left as an ENMU educator.

Mrs. Matheny's love of ENMU was apparent through her studies and devotion as First Lady.

Through hard work, sincere relationships and the desire to always do the right thing, they earned and maintained the respect of the campus and thousands of alumni and friends of the University.

They created the scholarship in honor of 13 members of the Matheny and Hansen families whose lives have been enriched by attending Eastern.

In a 1995 interview with ENMU's director of media relations in "Connections," ENMU's printed campus newsletter at the time, Dr. Matheny said although he was in no rush to bid the world adieu (he enjoyed watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament too much) when his time does come he has no desire to see "ENMU President" inscribed on the granite.

If someone insisted on chiseling, he would prefer "Teacher."

At the time of the interview, the 62-year-old historian was preparing to retire from his post-presidential career as director of Development and Governmental Relations at Eastern.

He said that faith and family had always been higher on his priorities than career achievement. He never had a proprietary feeling about being president, although he was honored to have served in the position and greatly respected the office and the job that then-current president Dr. Everett Frost was doing.

"It's a strange philosophy, but as a member of the faculty I would have been ideologically opposed to anyone who had an intense desire to be a university president," he said. "It seemed to me that such an opportunity came as a result of years of work in the academic ranks.

dr matheny and wife
Dr. Matheny with his wife, Sandra.

"I never expected to be an administrator. I attribute all the interesting things that have happened to Sandra and me to providence or pure accident. And that's a nice way for it to happen because I didn't have to put up with all the frustration of applying for and not getting a position.

"I've always felt that I trained to be a teacher and that's what I think I have the talent to do and really never expected to do anything else. All the other things have been fun and fulfilling, but temporary challenges."

Born to a grocer in Lubbock, Texas, Dr. Matheny enrolled at ENMU after his 1950 graduation from Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He remembered Eastern having a small, homogenous student body during his undergraduate years in the 1950s, which he interrupted with a six-year stint as a carpet salesman in California.

"Most of us came from similar backgrounds: hard-working, middle American, agrarian small-town families who were essentially alike in terms of political and religious beliefs," he said. "At that time, unfortunately, we didn't have the advantage of cultural diversity on campus as now, not in terms of African-American, Hispanic and Native-American students."

Dr. Matheny, whose master's thesis was "Martin Luther's Instrumentality of Scripture," remembered his first dramatic exposure to discrimination. In 1958, after returning to Eastern, he directed a choir which included a young African-American woman. On a trip through the Texas Panhandle, restaurants refused to serve her.

"We all refused to eat," said Dr. Matheny. "I had been in California and thought I'd had some pretty cosmopolitan experiences, but I'd never personally experienced the problem of segregation. It was a great lesson and made a lasting impact on me and the other students."

He said he regarded ethnic diversity and affirmative action to be one of the most significant developments on campus. He believed that a university president had a legal and moral obligation to support diversity.

A single-wing quarterback in high school, he also remembered that when the football stadium was on campus before it moved to its long-time location at Blackwater Draw seven miles from campus, it provided an electric feeling to the campus on game days. One of his unrealized goals as president was to move the stadium back to campus (which it was in 2016). He was a student when the stadium was built at Blackwater Draw and opposed its construction because it took the game away from students.

After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in history from ENMU in 1961 (he received a 1975 Ph.D. in history from the University of Arizona), Dr. Matheny taught or was an administrator at Middle Tennessee State University, Pepperdine University, University of Arizona, Fort Hays State University, ENMU-Clovis and ENMU-Portales where he was the vice president for Academic Affairs before being named president.

"I felt that our main responsibility was to create an environment where people would work themselves to death for students, an environment where people enjoyed working and students learned," he said about being president. "We must always strive to overcome the bureaucratic mentality in dealing with students. Of course, we have to recognize that people working with students are human and sometimes don't necessarily get up on the right side of the bed or have personal problems. But internal marketing, or keeping everyone committed to a student-centered mission, is absolutely essential for an institution, and that applies to all employees including the president."

Dr. Matheny said he enjoyed working in a university that never had an "Ivory Tower" mentality in what the university does not relate to the community.

"The town/gown relationship is extremely important, particularly to a university in a small community."

He believed that universities have a responsibility to be on the frontiers of knowledge and awareness.

"When you get 4,000 people together (at that time), there is just no end to their collective imagination."

One of the toughest parts of the job, according to Dr. Matheny, was having to make personnel decisions which affected the careers of people, even friends. "I lost friends in the process," he said, "but the most difficult thing was I caused my wife to lose friends. Those kinds of personnel decisions had to be made, but I don't know anyone who gets a thrill out of making them."

He credited Sandra with helping him make it through tough times.

"As president, you accept living in a fishbowl. It's easy to get upset when you are misquoted in a newspaper, or someone misinterprets your motives, but Sandra was excellent at helping me keep a balanced perspective."

Dr. Matheny said he appreciated the cooperative attitude of Eastern faculty. "At some institutions, the competitive nature among faculty creates a tremendous amount of ill-will toward each other. Eastern has never had the type of atmosphere where success is gained at the expense of colleagues."

He said that a university campus is an accident waiting to happen, one just never knows when or where or how serious it will be. He felt that it was important for him as president to be predictable because it gave the campus a certain security amidst the inevitable turmoil.

"Ironically, little problems created more vulnerability for a president than big ones," Dr. Matheny said. "I took the job seriously, but, hopefully, not myself."