Two years ago, when he was 93, Cloyce Matheny had this life advice for engineering students at his Mississippi State University alma mater: “Don’t stop living until you die.”
Matheny never did, fervently following that advice until Wednesday, when he and five other members of Statesville’s Front Street Baptist Church were killed in a church bus crash in Tennessee. He was 95.
As a boy in Okolona, Miss., Matheny developed a yearning to fly, and later, as an aeronautical and aerospace engineer, he had become involved in the early days of space flight.
Flying got him a wife, he told students at Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State two years ago. It was his first visit to the school since he graduated in 1941.
The story was recounted in Momentum, the engineering college’s yearly magazine.
Matheny had moved to Hampton, Va., for his first job after graduating – an aeronautical research engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. In Hampton, he immediately joined a church and there he met Statesville-raised Kathleen “Kitty” Lowe.
One day, he asked her to go for a ride – she didn’t know it was an airplane ride.
In the air, the young aeronautical engineer was so smitten, he asked Kitty to marry him. She said no. So flying over the Chesapeake Bay, Matheny pushed the controls forward and sent the plane diving for the bay.
A startled Kitty said: “Yes, yes, I will marry you, you silly fool!”
When he uprighted the plane, Kitty told him her acceptance of his proposal had been made under duress and, no, she would not marry him. He dipped the plane again toward the water until Kitty gave the satisfactory response.
They married in 1942 and started a life of moving around the country and world for jobs.
Space and supersonic jets
While in Virginia, Matheny had earned his first vacation and flew to St. Louis, Mo., for a job interview with McDonnell Douglas. He didn’t tell his wife, said his son, Gilbert Matheny.
“He got the job and returned to Virginia to make a deal with my mother,” Gilbert said. “He said, ‘If you go along with me on this job, I promise you I’ll take you wherever you want to live when it’s over.’”
She wanted to retire in Statesville, where she grew up.
“It took 47 years for him to keep that promise,” said Gilbert Matheny.
The Mathenys moved to St. Louis with two young sons, and then had two more children, a son and daughter.
During those 47 years and beyond, they lived extraordinary lives.
At NACA, Cloyce worked with a team from Bell Aircraft to develop the then-secret X-1 supersonic plane, in which Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time. Matheny also was involved in NASA’s Mercury and Gemini space missions.
At McDonnell Douglas, he helped develop the F-101 Voodoo supersonic jet fighter and F-4 Phantom fighter jets.
He was ready to retire at 64, Matheny told the Mississippi State students, but a new project with the British Navy’s Royal Submarine Fleet convinced him to stay. Matheny and Kitty moved their four children into a castle in Scotland and Matheny worked on missile systems for the fleet.
Three years later, he was ready to retire again but was offered a project in Pakistan. So the Mathenys moved there for six months.
Finally, in 1985, Matheny got to keep his promise to Kitty and they moved to Statesville.
Traveled the world
In retirement, they joined Front Street Baptist and continued to travel the world – often doing missionary work in South America, their son said.
They helped build a seminary in Venezuela and taught English in Thailand.
Even their doctor couldn’t keep them from going into the Peruvian Andes Mountains. Matheny told this story to the MSU students that was recounted in Momentum:
“We were preparing to go to Peru to work high in the Andes Mountains, so we went for a checkup,” he said. “The doctor said: ‘Mrs. Matheny absolutely should not go, and neither should you, Mr. Matheny.’ But I just said: ‘I didn’t ask for your permission.’ So we went. My wife worked at an orphanage while I helped drill water wells.”
Matheny, his son said, paid for three wells. He’d cook for the team but never let on that he was financing the mission.
At the end of each one, he’d place a plaque at the well to name it for his son, Stephen, who died 20 years ago.
Matheny and Kitty had been married nearly 70 years when she died in 2012.
He stayed active. Five years ago, he went skydiving on his 90th birthday. He asked the instructor if he was the oldest to jump from a plane at that airport. No. A 91-year-old man had beat him.
Two years later, Matheny returned to break the record, his son said.
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