Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

Web Edition

lead stories
other news



chess forum
town talk


press releases


last week's issue

real estate
classified ads

MAN OF PRINCETON: "Why would you go somewhere else when you live in the best town in the U.S.A.? It's the 'Athens' of the U.S." John P. C. Matthews, a born and bred Princetonian, is an expert on mid-20th century Eastern Europe. Currently at work on a book on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he is an enthusiastic admirer of his home town.

Princeton Resident John P. C. Matthews Is Expert on 1950s Eastern Europe

John P. C. Matthews is Princeton-born and bred. Indeed, his Princeton lineage – town and gown – is impressive, spanning several generations.

Family portraits include leaders in the clergy, law (a U.S. Supreme Court justice), education, and journalism. Mr. Matthews has followed in their footsteps – if not in choice of career, but by his engagement in the world, actively seeking ways to make a positive difference.

With his love of Princeton sound and strong, he has traveled widely, concentrating on Eastern Europe, an area which became the focus of his life work, a career blending government, business, education, and writing.

A Princeton boyhood and background filled with music, sports, church, and school were the foundation of his later wide-ranging interests and accomplishments.

Born in Princeton in 1929, he was the second son of Thomas S. Matthews and Juliana Cuyler Matthews, members of two well-known Princeton families.

"My mother had four brothers and my father had five sisters," reports Mr. Matthews. "So there were four Cuyler uncles and five Matthews aunts. And I was probably 10 or 11 before I realized that not everyone had two sets of grandparents living in the same town."

Every Summer

Three brothers, Thomas, Paul, and Alexander completed the family.

Young John's life was one of privilege. As he recalls, "My father's family was wealthy. My grandfather, Paul Matthews, was the Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, and my father was managing editor of Time Magazine from 1942 to 1949. We went every summer near Newport, R.I. to my grandfather's house. We'd sail, go to the beach, and have wonderful summers there."

He was especially close to his Cuyler relatives, in particular his uncle and godfather Lewis B. "Buzz" Cuyler.

"I saw a lot of him." recalls Mr. Matthews. "I admired my father, but I didn't see him as much. As editor of Time, he had to be at the magazine a lot, and sometimes I'd only see him two or three hours a week. Then in 1952, he went to live in England, and 'The Barracks', the Cuyler house, became home to us.

"I greatly admired my father and his writing," continues Mr. Matthews." He was definitely the best editor the U.S. produced in the 20th Century, but we had many fights, and I didn't always like him."

He has especially warm feelings for his mother, however, who died in 1949 when John was in college.

Enjoyable Memories

"I loved my mother very much. She introduced religon to me. She was very religious herself, and she was also thought to be the most beautiful girl in town."

In addition, he has many enjoyable memories of his mother reading all the children's classics to her boys.

"I went to Miss Fine's School through the fourth grade and then to Princeton Country Day until 9th grade," says Mr. Matthews. "I grew up on Hibben Road, and I remember we'd rush home from school on our bikes to listen to the radio, especially "The Green Hornet", "Jack Armstrong", and "The Lone Ranger."

"We also loved the movies and went to the Playhouse and the Garden for $.35! We had favorite movie stars like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable.

"I enjoyed school," he continues. "I was occasionally on the honor roll, and I also enjoyed sports and acting. In my senior year at PDS, when I was 12, I played the lead in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I also played soccer, ice hockey, and baseball."

John also had an older brother, Tom, to keep an eye on him. "He would often break the ice. He'd always say to the older kids, 'do you mind if I bring my little brother along?', and I'd tag along. At 14, I went with him one summer to work on a cattle ranch in Montana, where I learned to smoke and roll my own!"

Ice Skating

Growing up in Princeton, then a town of some 7,000 to 8,000 people, Mr. Matthews especially remembers the years during World War II.

"We heard about Pearl Harbor when we were ice skating on Sunday afternoon at Baker Rink," he recalls. "Most of the town skated there on Sunday."

The rink is named for yet another relative – Hobart Baker, his mother's first cousin. The legendary "Hobey" Baker of Princeton University hockey fame, was killed while serving with the Lafayette Esquedrille in World War I.

"There was a lot of military around during the war," says Mr. Matthews. "The Army and Navy training programs were on campus, and the Marines were at the Graduate College. I remember hearing them play taps at night, which was beautiful. There was also a Belgian refugee, who played the carillon, and that was lovely."

Albert Einstein lived nearby, he adds, and "we'd often see him walking, and I was introduced to him. Those were good days."

When he was 14, John followed family tradition and went to South Kent Prep School in Connecticut, which had been founded by his uncle, Richard Cuyler.

Old Nassau

Given his family history, it was a forgone conclusion that he would spend his college days at Old Nassau. As he says, "attending Princeton University was the path of least resistance. My paternal grandfather, my father, my brother Tom, and four Cuyler uncles had all gone there. All together, at that time, eight members of my family had attended Princeton.

"Also, who knows – if I had applied to Yale or Harvard, I might not have gotten in!"

Not especially interested in academics, John was satisfied with a "Gentleman's C" until his senior year, he recalls.

"When I came to Princeton, I was something of a jock. At South Kent, I had played on the undefeated football team, rowed, and was captain of the hockey team. One football game stands out as a highlight of my life. We beat another undefeated team after we were down 20 to 6 in the fourth quarter."

While at the University, he played freshman and varsity hockey, and also rowed on the crew team. In addition, he enjoyed singing in the glee club.

At Princeton, he also continued his friendship with Ralph C. Woodward, who had been his roommate at South Kent. It is a friendship which has remained close through the years.

Troop Ship

"When we met at South Kent, we found out we were distant cousins," recalls Mr. Woodward, now living in Massachusetts. "We became very good friends, and we had similar interests. Johnny persuaded me to come to Princeton. We roomed together again, and because we were related, I became immersed in his family too.

"Johnny and I spent the summer before going to Princeton cycling in England. We went over on a converted troop ship with our bikes. It was a marvelous trip. Johnny had great connections through his family, and we met everyone from servants and working people to dons at Oxford and dukes and duchesses."

Majoring in English literature at Princeton, John was intellectually engaged by his senior thesis, he reports. "It was about Interbellum England between World Wars I and II and the satiric writers Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell. I liked it because it was very much my own research.

"I admired several professors at Princeton," he adds. "One I particularly remember is English Professor Lawrence Thompson, who said in our first class: 'There is no such thing as objectivity.'"

Throughout his college years, John attended services at Trinity Church, where he had started out early in his childhood as a choir boy.

"I was an acolyte there, and one time T.S. Eliot, who was then at the Institute for Advanced Study, came in, and he was the only person in the congregation. I also worked in the St. Paul's Society on campus."

Mr. Matthews' life went in a new direction in 1949, when he met Wellesley student Verna Damon while he was on a trip to Massachusetts.

"I met her at Harvard, and for me, it was love at first sight! She was from Pittsfield, Mass., and her family, originally from England, had founded Reading, Mass. We got married in 1951 before graduation, after I had finished my thesis. The most important thing I ever did in my life was proposing to her!"

Career Plans

Career plans were up in the air after graduation, he reports. "Having spent one summer at the Princeton Herald, where I had the privilege of working with guys back from the war, I was thinking of going into journalism. But I wasn't really committed. If there had been a Peace Corps then, I would have gone right into it. I wanted to convey the values of American freedom to others."

As it turned out, he joined Radio Free Europe (RFE) in August of 1951, and as he explains, "Radio Free Europe was put together by a number of private people who had been in and out of government, and it was backed by the U.S. government. I got a job writing the news, which was translated by exiles and then transmitted to countries in Eastern Europe."

The Matthews lived in New York City for two years during this time, but then returned to Princeton – "My wife and I are 'country' people" – until 1954, when they relocated to Munich, Germany, headquarters of RFE.

"My heart was set on going to Munich," he recalls. "It was exciting to be where the action was. We loved Munich and had an apartment, which was full of exiles who spoke no English. We spoke a little German, but as it turned out, English was becoming the 'lingua franca' of all the exiles."

Mr. Matthews remembers those days with much pleasure and as the beginning of his fascination with mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

"I worked at the Central News Desk, writing headlines. There were bureaus all over Western Europe, and we were targeting all the countries in Eastern Europe trying to bring news to them. I really enjoyed the work. There were a lot of young Americans involved."

Ethical Matters

One of the Americans Mr. Matthews worked with was journalist Les Whitten, Jr., later a respected reporter with The Washington Post. Now retired and living in Washington, D.C., Mr. Whitten recalls Mr. Matthews' scrupulous care and attention to the work at hand, and his integrity.

"I've known John since he went to RFE in the '50s, and we were all in the newsroom together in Munich. John is a very careful editor and very responsible writer. He did wonderful work. Also, we could always count on John when it came to journalistic ethics or any ethical matters. We could bounce them off him and be sure of getting a pure answer. John was in a sense the purest of us all.

"He and his wife Verna were one of four families that were very close at RFE. We'd get together for Thanksgiving and other American holidays, and go on vacations together. He's been my pal ever since."

Reflecting on those days, Mr. Matthews recalls being very absorbed in the work. "I was wrapped up in the Cold War, interested in understanding Communists and what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. I was especially fascinated by a speech Krushchev made in 1956, and did an analysis of it. I decided that it was a very defensive speech, and that our work was being effective."

In 1956, still in Munich, Mr. Matthews became editorial advisor to Free Europe Press (FEP), which was part of the Free Europe Committee, consisting of print, radio, and exile departments.

"Early on, there was an FEP balloon leaflet campaign containing condensations of Western news directed to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary," explains Mr. Matthews.

Key Individuals

The leaflet program stopped at the time of the Hungarian Revolution in October of 1956, and another program which had already begun was emphasized.

This included mailing actual books and magazines to designated individuals, especially intellectuals, in various Eastern European countries. Eventually, says Mr. Matthews, more than 10 million books, magazines and periodicals were put into the hands of key individuals living in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

"A Marshall Plan for the Mind", as he describes the project, it did not focus on propaganda, but instead emphasized the best of the West's ideas in literature, art, philosophy, economics, etc.

Responses in the form of letters from the recipients were very positive, and as Mr. Matthews later noted in an article in "The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence" in 2003, the program "must have had a significant influence on professional people in the Soviet orbit as they waited out those nearly four decades of the Cold War.

"At the start of 1989, no one in the West imagined that the Iron Curtain would fall by the end of the year, or that the Soviet Union would disappear two years later.... The chasm between East and West had finally disappeared.... Reality, filtering through that Iron Curtain in a hundred ways, replaced the unnatural and ultimately irrational Communist system. Intellectuals in the East understood intellectuals in the West because they had been reading the same books."

In 1959, Mr. Matthews and his family, now including three sons – Philip, John, and Christopher – returned to the U.S., where he served as Program Director of the Foreign Policy Association's World Affairs Center in New York.

Great Decisions

"A great deal of the program had to do with the United Nations," he explains. "American community leaders were invited to spend a day at the U.N., including a visit to the General Assembly, to learn more about the operation of the U.N.

"This program took place in the fall," he continues. "In the winter, we arranged 'Great Decisions' meetings all over the country in which participants met to discuss important issues, such as 'What Should Be the U.S. Policy in the Middle East?'

"I was fascinated with these programs, and in 1968, I organized and put on a 'Great Decisions' meeting here in Princeton. We had a mix of topics, and history Professor Cyril Black of Princeton University was very helpful in recruiting excellent professors to speak on different subjects. It was broadcast on WHWH."

His experience at the Foreign Policy Association's World Affairs Center led to a four-year stint at Princeton University's Development in International Affairs program.

"Allen Kassof, Professor of sociology, was an expert on Soviet Youth," explains Mr. Matthews. "He and Professor Black headed the Critical Languages program at Princeton in which students from other colleges would come here to study Japanese, Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, etc. I was involved in the administration of this program and raising funds for it, and also as back-up to Professor Black."

Scholarly Exchange

Then, it was back to New York, where at the invitation of Professor Kassof, who had founded the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), Mr. Matthews headed its East European operations.

A scholarly exchange program, it involved 160 colleges and universities, he explains. Soviet and Eastern European scholars came to American universities, and Americans traveled to universities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Scholarly research, not teaching, was emphasized.

"We worked with the Department of State, the Ford Foundation, and educational ministries of the foreign countries," says Mr. Matthews. "I was with this organization for 13 years, and that was when I first went behind the Iron Curtain and to all the East European countries. I got a much better feeling about the situation by actually going to these countries."

In fact, Mr. Matthews has traveled to Eastern Europe more than 70 times, and on each occasion, he has kept a journal.

After leaving IREX in 1981, he launched his own company, East Europe Trade Association, an import-export business, which he operated for 14 years. It was after his retirement that he seriously began to consider writing a book based on his observations, experiences, and knowledge of Eastern Europe in the 1950s.

"I wanted to do a book about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but when the Iron Curtain fell, there were hundreds of books on it," he says. "But none tells the whole story. I brought home a trunkful of material from the Central Newsroom in Munich, and I decided to do a book when I retired."

Exciting Incident

As it turns out, he wrote another book, Tinderbox: East-Central Europe in the Spring, Summer and Early Fall of 1956 first, really the result of a conversation he had had with a young Hungarian scholar.

"I was telling him about an incident in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1956, when the students held their annual 'Majales' (meaning May in Latin) parade on the first of May. An ancient custom, it was banned by the Communists in 1948, but in '56 they let the students have it in Czechoslovakia. Although they clipped their wings, they didn't arrest anyone. It was an exciting incident, and the Czechs were delighted.

"The Hungarian fellow didn't know about this, and it became the crux of an article for me: 'Majales', which was published in the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. It was so well-received that it was then translated into Czech and published by the Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences." Out of that came Mr. Matthews book, Tinderbox.

As the evidence suggests, working hard is certainly Mr. Matthews' "m.o.", but he tries to take time out to enjoy the pleasures of Princeton, a place he continues to value and where he has lived most of his life.

Of course, he is aware of changes and a loss of some of the amenities of past times in Princeton. As he says, "I miss so many of the old stores not being here. There are so many chains now. Princeton was a small town when I was growing up, you couldn't walk down Nassau Street, and not see someone you knew."

Great Place

It's still a great place, though, he hastens to add. "You have theater, tremendous live music, also a terrific classical radio station in WWFM. It's a wonderful place to bring up kids. They can go to all the games at the University, and it's a great location between New York and Philadelphia." Mr. Matthews continues to have a strong interest in music, and he regularly sings bass/baritone in the Society of Musical Amateurs, an organization established in 1935. He gets together with the chorus eight times a year.

Trinity Church also remains a significant part of his life. "I believe I am the oldest congregant in terms of continuity," he says, with a smile. "The church is very important to me. It was founded by my 3-times great grandfather, John Potter, on the Cuyler side. He owned the land the church is on and gave it to them.

"He is buried in the churchyard there. So is my father, mother, my grandfather, and my infant son. I will be buried there too. It is home. It is very meaningful to me."

Mr. Matthews' involvement with the church extends to volunteer work as a visitor to church members in the hospital. Princeton resident, author, and deacon at Trinity, Peter Funk, comments on Mr. Matthews' loyalty and dedication to this work. "John has been a hospital caller for a number of years. He is very gifted in this way. He relates very well to people and connects with patients so well. He is there representing God through the church. It is truly a gift to be able to do this. I always enjoy talking with John, and he is a very responsible, dedicated person."

Turbulent Times

Having witnessed turbulent times during his life and career, Mr. Matthews is strongly involved in the peace movement, and he is a founding member of the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton. "I have worked with them and am a member of 20 other organizations working for peace," he explains. "I am an activist for peace."

Not surprisingly, many of the people Mr. Matthews most admires are those who have also sought to advance peace in the world. "There are so many people I admire today," he remarks. "George Soros, a Hungarian Jew, who left Hungary at 16 and has given $100 million to Russia to pay the salaries of atomic scientists.

"I admire Lech Walesa, Ghandi, Adlai Stevenson, and Martin Luther King. They are all heroes to me."

Now Mr. Matthews is working hard on his upcoming book, Explosion: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which he hopes will be published in 2006, the 50th anniversary of the event.

"I'm not a scholar or historian," he says. "I'm writing historical journalism. What I want to do is bring the Revolution back alive. It was a very exciting time. If it had gone differently, the Cold War could have ended sooner.

"Things are hopeful in Eastern Europe now, but many of the same people who were oppressing the Eastern Europeans are still in the woodwork – the Secret Police, Communist officials, etc. But things are getting better. The European Union is a major step. The young people think of themselves as Europeans today."

Young people and intellectuals are often forces for change, points out Ralph Woodward. "John was in a unique position, was actually getting information at the time, and what was happening then in 1956 – a resurgence of freedom – is seen in the world at large today. Youth and intellectuals are two forces in society that are catalysts for change, and it is relevant to our world today."

Mr. Matthews surely agrees, especially with reference to the very successful "Marshall Plan for the MInd". As he has written in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence: "In an age of 'war on terror' and a seeming clash of cultures, it is comforting to look back and consider that precedents for our problems do exist, that what seem like intractable problems do get solved, and implacable foes can be turned into people who understand and respect one another when communication is genuine, avoids propaganda, and is conducted on a truly cultural level."


Website Design by Kiyomi Camp