Salute to veterans

By Chris Buchignani, November 2016

The great stories of any age are often best understood by tracing the tiny threads of personal experience. In following these winding strands, seeing where and how they intersect, we come to understand how the collective weight of countless individual acts underpins the forces that shape our world.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 6.45.38 PM.pngOn the afternoon of April 11, 1945, General George S. Patton’s 6th Armored Division, including a young soldier from western Pennsylvania named Albert Edward Matyasovsky, rolled in to liberate Buchenwald, one of the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Among the 21,000 prisoners set free that day was a teenage boy named Elie Wiesel.

In a bustle of thousands of anonymous faces that day, the two never met. For a brief and meaningful moment though, the threads of their life stories intersected.

Wiesel, who passed away earlier this year, counted among the lucky few to survive the horrors of the Holocaust; he grew up to author over 50 books and win the Nobel Prize. Elie Wiesel was able to share his gifts with the world because of the sacrifice and bravery of American and other Allied soldiers. One of them, Matyasovsky, returned from war with a lifetime’s worth of experiences spanning Normandy to the Ardennes and beyond, fortunate enough to have come back home at all. He did not gain great wealth or notoriety in his post-war life, but as a father, he created a legacy and influence that will positively impact the lives of future Penn State students.

Al Matyasovsky, Jr., who recently retired from Penn State after decades overseeing the University’s waste management and recycling programs, has established the Veterans’ Education and Advancement Fund (VEAF), a scholarship endowment with the Penn State World Campus. He and his wife, Sharon, cite their parents, particularly Al’s father and mother, as their inspiration in launching this effort, which will provide financial assistance to veterans, active duty military, and their family members who are enrolled in the University’s online programs.

“We lived in a coal mining town for six years, very meager surroundings. My father used to have to carry water from a community pump up to our house that we drank, bathed in, and cooked with, and I never heard him complain,” the son recalls. Al absorbed the lessons of his father’s work ethic, but also the man’s oft-repeated core values: “Treat people with respect. Be fair. Be honest. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat.”

The “American Century” that blossomed in the wake of Allied victory in WWII brought widespread educational and economic opportunity to a generation of Americans. Despite an impoverished upbringing, Al’s commitment to following his father’s example brought on the academic achievement necessary to open those doors. As a senior, a meeting with his high school guidance counselor put Matyasovsky on the path to a college education.

“She said, ‘We send guys like you to college,’ and she got me all the money that I would go to college on… that changed my life. It demonstrated to me how people outside the family who have faith in you can affect your life in a tremendous way.”

Matyasovsky graduated from Lock Haven University, and after a few job and location changes, he obtained a position with Penn State that turned into a long career. Over more than 30 years of service, Al was in charge of many of the University’s solid waste management and recycling efforts. He managed gameday operations at Beaver Stadium for a quarter century, including post-9/11 security measures, and he also implemented some of the school’s most innovative and recognizable sustainability efforts.

These include the now-ubiquitous blue recycling bags that dot the tailgating fields during football season and, probably most notably, the annual Trash to Treasure sale at Beaver Stadium, where departing students donate items they would otherwise discard that are then sold to benefit the county United Way. Matyasovsky proudly notes that, since its inception, the event has raised over $750,000 for the charity while repurposing “stuff that was going to the landfill.”

After retiring, Al sought to finally make good on a long-held ambition to philanthropically support veterans, thinking of the inspiring role his father had played throughout his life. While considering the creation of a new foundation, he also spoke with staff at the University about his idea. Those discussions led to the creation of the Veterans’ Education and Advancement Fund scholarship within the Penn State World Campus. “The logic is that a veteran and their family don’t have to uproot themselves to come to University Park. They can receive a Penn State degree from anywhere in the world.”

An especially unique facet that distinguishes the VEAF, according to Matyasovsky, is the flexibility to also support family members of service members and vets.

“The love and admiration that we have for our parents is still very strong today. We feel that the family also deserves credit for supporting the veterans who defend our freedoms and support our way of life. Our fathers were in the military, and our mothers taught us the way of keeping family together and being part of the neighborhood and so on.”

The VEAF will hold its first fundraising event, a dinner at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, in April 2017. The fund is now a permanent part of the veterans’ support programming offered by the World Campus, which has been consistently ranked as the top online education program for veterans and active-duty military in the nation. As the lead donors, Al and Sharon are dedicated to growing the fund continually to amplify its impact.

“I’m not a hero for it. My father was the hero. I just did what my father and mother advised me to do. My mother used to say, ‘Being poor has nothing to do with who you are as a person.’ Both my parents told me, ‘Study hard. Get good grades, and good things will happen to you.’”

Follow the thread.

Through courage and fortitude, a generation of Americans like Al Matyasovsky, Sr. won battlefield victories that changed lives for millions, including a young Elie Wiesel. He returned home to support and inspire a son who went on to make a lasting impact on life here in the Nittany Valley, first as a long-time Penn State employee and now again with the VEAF.

Motivated by the memory of veterans who so strongly influenced their lives, Al and Sharon Matyasovsky’s efforts will enable the dreams of education and opportunity for future generations of America’s service men and women and their families. Until all is said and done, who can know how many more lives they will touch, how many more threads will cross their own and end up better for it?