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John Mathis

Retired astronomy professor John Mathis has made his mark as a mentor and tutor.

John Mathis’ ideas might seem alien to some. For an astronomer and a volunteer, however, he certainly landed in the right place.

Mathis was recently interviewed in the colored-quilt-walled apartment he and his wife, Carol, share in Oakwood Village, where they have lived the past 10 years. As Mathis described his unusually active life as a volunteer — and now, an honored volunteer — Carol (she is the quilt-maker) sat on a sofa deftly knitting. He deferred to her memory often, and she smiled every time.

Mathis brought his growing family to Madison in 1959, lured here because Michigan State University did not have an astronomy department and UW-Madison did and it was a very good one, he said. A theoritician, Mathis’ move turned out fruitful, for both sides. Five children and a 36-year career at the university — not counting the extra decade up to 2006 as a research-busy emeritus — later, Mathis heard of a volunteer teaching spot that “sounded like fun.”

So he became an accredited volunteer for the Children’s Dyslexia Center, at the Madison Masonic Center. Then he volunteered to help prisoners learn to read. He is also a forest ranger, of sorts, keeping Oakwood’s forested area free of buckthorn and other invasive species.

At 85, Mathis in April was given the “Tutor of the Year” award by Wisconsin Literacy, which noted he had given 1,500 hours of one-to-one tutoring sessions and “double that” on his own time writing individual lesson plans. But he has been at this sort of thing for a long time. On the topic of time, the astrophysicist whose expertise extends to black holes and interstellar dust, the Milky Way and Comet Kohoutek, would probably say it’s all relative. After all, in 1981, he and two UW-Madison astronomy colleagues were credited with discovering the biggest known star in the universe (R136a, since determined to be a collection of stars), and he once donated a kidney (2007) because he had “read that there was a shortage.” It “went to a woman in Michigan, named Dawn, I think.”

A Dallas native, Mathis has a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology.

You’ve been here a long time, why did you stay? What’s so great about Madison?

UW has had a real good astronomy department, it’s collegial, we all liked and respected one another. A stimulating atmosphere here in Madison, the arts are here. I’ve had a great time here. Madison has an influence; you can make a difference here.

You had no background in teaching reading. Why and how dyslexia?

Another resident here knew of the program and dyslexic training in general. I liked to teach. The course was user friendly. Dylexia is all about this amazing plastic organ called the brain. It’s common for a dyslexic student to be considered a pariah.

The learning is a gradual process. The most important thing I try to teach is not how to read, not how to spell, but to tell the kid you’re not stupid. Kids like to hear that. Get past those barriers and let them know their right brain is ready to fire.

You and Carol in the mid- to late 1960s were temporary infant foster parents, 16 infants and children waiting for adoption, while you were raising your five children?

Yes. We like kids and we sure liked babies. We saw there was a need. And if there is a need for something you like to do, that’s great. Holding a newborn is a wonderful thing. There is nothing like the gurgle of a laughing baby.

Can you put your career as an expert in astrophysics and astronomy in context?

Sure. Stars are simple. People are complicated.

Your first job growing up in Dallas?

I worked for the Marigold Petroleum Co. research lab, which was trying to find out if you have oil 5,000 feet underground, is there any hint of it near the surface, traces of hydrocarbons. So I dug post holes, for which there were no posts.

What are you reading?

The Science of ‘Interstellar.’” It’s a fine book about the wonder of black holes. It’s about how they made a movie about black holes and how hard they had to work to make the science accurate. And I just read “Fahrenheit 451.” I got through the first Harry Potter, but after that it didn’t make sense. The real world is so much more interesting.

— Interview by George Hesselberg

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