Voices and Ideas

Celebrating 100 Years

By Teddy Eisenberg

Born on February 15, 1915 in Pasadena, California, one of Phi Beta Kappa’s oldest living members, Mildred Shapley Matthews, celebrates her one-hundredth birthday this year.

“I feel no different from the year before; one hundred is just a round number,” said Matthews. “My great-grandmother lived to 105, and back in her day a lot fewer people even reached 100 than today. She was tough; I am tough, or maybe just lucky.”

The daughter of well-known astronomer Harlow and Martha (Betz) Shapley, Mildred was a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in physical science in 1936. She took her first position as a research assistant at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in 1950, remaining for eleven years.

In 1960, Matthews moved to Italy to serve as a bilingual editor and research assistant at astronomical observatories in Merate and in Trieste, before moving back to the United States in 1970. At the University of Arizona, Tucson, she served as a research assistant at the college’s Lunar-Planetary Lab until her retirement in 1996. During this time, Mildred also edited the space science series of the Arizona University Press.

Matthews was the recipient of The Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service to Planetary Science from the American Astronomical Society in 1993. She has also contributed articles to Sky & Telescope and the Italian astronomical magazine Astronomia.

Mildred married Ralph Vernon Matthews on September 25, 1937. The couple had four children: June Lorraine, Bruce Shapley, Melvin Lloyd, and Martha Alys.

“[Mildred] has valued scholarship and learning very highly all her life,” said June. “She worked very hard in college to earn good grades and thus to be elected to [Phi Beta Kappa], of which she is justifiably proud.”

Matthews has been a world traveler throughout her life, with her adventures taking her from the Great Wall of China to the deserts of Egypt and on cruises through the Panama Canal and the inside passage to Alaska. She has visited most of the countries of Europe, from Spain to Russia, and enjoyed many trips to her favorite country, Italy. 

“She has kept a detailed ‘diary’ each time, which in my view is some of the most vivid travel writing that I have read,” said June.

Mildred grew up playing the piano and the violin, and has been a great fan of classical music all her life. She particularly enjoys grand opera, regularly traveling to Santa Fe for the summer opera season. She maintains a season subscription to the Los Angeles Opera and had a season subscription to the San Francisco Opera when she lived in Berkeley.

When asked about her plans for 2015, Matthews replied: “Just to continue as I have been and appreciate the beautiful world around me.  One picks up a lot of problems the older we get but if I can manage to have fun, I'm willing to carry on.”

Photo: Mildred Shapley Matthews (in blue) surrouned by family in Stockholm, Sweden in December, 2012 at a rather special occasion—the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Mildred's brother, Lloyd Shapley (bearded gentleman to Mildred's right). 

Teddy Eisenberg is a junior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in economics and history. Case Western is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

(Posted on 2/20/2015 )