Search the Archive:

Back to the Table of Contents Page

Back to The Almanac Home Page


Publication Date: Wednesday, February 19, 2003

A man in full: Woodside's Marshall Mathews battles a deadly disease with indefatigable spirit A man in full: Woodside's Marshall Mathews battles a deadly disease with indefatigable spirit (February 19, 2003)

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

The trajectory of an individual human life from beginning to middle to end is essentially unknown, despite many best-laid plans. How an individual copes with that unknown can reveal qualities that are heroic, tragic, encouraging, disappointing, remarkable, unremarkable and all shades of meaning in between.

For Woodside resident, antique-car enthusiast and auto body professional Marshall Mathews, the unknown arrived in February 2000, when his speech began to slur. He didn't know it at the time but later learned that the motor neurons that control his larynx were dying, a symptom of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

But though he's being cut down in the midst of an extraordinary career of restoring life to vibrant, remarkable automobiles, he does not protest, nor does he slow down, nor has he stopped enjoying his life.

Over the three years since the onset of this progressively debilitating, usually fatal and currently incurable disease, Mr. Mathews, 56, has lost his ability to speak, and other muscle groups in his body are wasting away, not because they're damaged but because they no longer receive nerve signals. He communicates by writing on a tablet-sized white board.

"I find new skills every day that I can't do." Mr. Mathews said in a recent interview with the Almanac. "I fell twice today [for the first time] on the stairs. You just take it in stride."

He still walks, though with much difficulty, and continues to drive to work every day at his auto body shop on Embarcadero Drive down by the Palo Alto Baylands, where he "keeps an eye on things," says his longtime friend and business partner Ignacio Montelongo, who goes by J.R.

Since the onset of his illness, Mr. Mathews has been an active fundraiser in the search for a cure for ALS. He has used his large and extraordinary collection of rare cars and the celebrity that comes with it to raise over $250,000.

An adventurous life

Mr. Mathews grew up in San Francisco's wealthy Pacific Heights neighborhood, the son of a corporate lawyer.

In 1964, just before Marshall was 17, his dad died. With his mother's permission, he joined the Navy and volunteered for the submarine service. "I was a complete failure at high school. I knew I would join [the military]," he says.

He also relied on the advice of a World War II veteran named Jack Ahearn, who became his mentor, father figure and fellow fly fisherman. "I had several great mentors. Jack steered me right, dead bull's eye, where I needed to be. I did the rest," he says.

He served for three years on diesel-powered subs, not because he was afraid of the new nuclear-powered vessels, he says, but because he felt the possibilities for adventure were greater on a more traditional vessel, a foreshadowing perhaps of his future passion for vintage cars.

After his discharge, Mr. Mathews earned a degree in biology from Santa Clara University. Sometime in his third year, he realized he'd been on autopilot heading toward a goal his father had set for him: a career in medicine. "Someone wanted me to be a doctor, not me," he says.

He graduated but never applied to medical school. "Never went, never regretted it," he says. After graduation, he took various jobs, "casting about until I found out what I wanted," he says.

One day in 1977, he walked into the office of Palo Alto auto body shop owner Carl Carlsen to inquire about a manager's position he'd heard about. After a couple of talks and despite his total lack of experience in the field, Mr. Carlsen hired him.

It was the start of a long and productive relationship. In 1977, the shop was ranked 20th for "body shop success" in a nationwide survey. A year later, they had moved up to No. 1, Mr. Mathews says.

"I worked long hours, and hard," Mr. Mathews says. "It's still good. I can't wait to get to work every day." He bought the business in the mid-1980s, and shortly thereafter entered a partnership with J.R.

Mr. Carlsen, who ended his daily involvement after selling the business, is godfather to Mr. Mathews' daughter. "We are extremely close," Mr. Mathews says.

J.R. was Mr. Mathews' first hire in 1977, starting as a car washer. "I love him like a son and he's calling the shots now, and later," Mr. Mathews says. "I hate three-day weekends: I don't like not to see him for three days in a row." Mr. Mathews is godfather to J.R.'s son, Mathew.

An extraordinary collection

As the owner of an auto body shop, it's to be expected that Mr. Mathews would have exceptional vehicles in his garage, and he does. Most were built before 1935, many were built for speed and every one of them looks as if it were just driven off a showroom floor.

Mr. Mathews restored them all from various states of disrepair. Since the onset of his illness, his ability to participate in a restoration has changed. His current project is a burgundy 1917 12-cylinder Packard, which an employee at his shop is rebuilding from the ground up.

His collection, gathered over 20 years, consists of about 50 cars, several antique motorcycles and some classic wooden speed boats. In addition to many elegant touring cars made by Packard and Pierce Arrow, Mr. Mathews' collection has several sports cars, including a couple of older Porsches, a Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso, an Alpha Romeo Giulia Sprint Special and a Mercedes 300 SL convertible.

But at the spirited heart of his collection are some of the first fully realized sports cars ever built, cars that were owned by men who, in Mr. Mathews' words, "didn't care what their mothers thought."

The model names may not resonate today, but in 1918, the owner of a Stutz-Bearcat or a Mercer Raceabout had something to feel exclusive about: big classily designed two-seaters with no windscreens, no doors and 70-mph top speeds.

In photos of the period, adventurous-looking motorists are shown wearing heavy coats, scarves, driving gloves and goggles, all of which were definitely necessary then and still necessary and on hand in Mr. Mathews' garage for excursions today.

Mr. Mathews continues to drive, though he can't take the Bearcat out anymore. "I don't normally have that much trouble shifting the Mercer. But I can't push the clutch all the way down so I think my stick-shift days are numbered," he says. "It's hard to tell people of the joy of riding in a Mercer or Stutz-Bearcat."

At the other end of the speed spectrum, Mr. Mathews and his partner J.R have taken his one-cylinder 1902 Packard horseless carriage to England four times for the annual 58-mile Veteran Car Run from London to Brighton. They've also taken the Packard, with its open-air seating and top speed of 28 mph, on a nine-day, 1,000 mile journey through the English countryside, complete with English weather.

The kindness of strangers

Every three months, Mr. Mathews and Nancy, his wife of 25 years, drive to the Forbes Norris MDA/ALS Research Center in San Francisco for a full day of attention from a range of medical professionals.

At the Forbes Norris clinic, Mr. Mathews and all visiting ALS patients see a physician, a speech pathologist, a nutritionist, a respiratory therapist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and a psychologist, says Ms. Mathews. "It's a very expensive disease," she says.

But ALS patients visiting the clinic never see a medical bill. What isn't covered by insurance is covered by donations to the clinic foundation, Ms. Mathews says.

Mr. Mathews is now on the receiving end of philanthropy, a bit of an unusual circumstance for him. For 20 years, his luxurious Packards have been available for weddings and other events, and the proceeds were always given away, he says.

"I would charge a reasonable fee and send it off to some good cause," he says. "When my cars are rented for movies or plays, same thing." The contributions amounted to several thousand dollars each year, he says.

Mr. Mathews also once opened his home to an African-American student at Stanford who had grown up poor in Atlanta and who boldly asked for a ride one day on encountering Mr. Mathews in one of his cars. They became fast friends and have shared many experiences since.

In January, Mr. Mathews hosted a fundraiser at his Woodside home that raised $8,800 for the Forbes Norris clinic, including matching contributions from San Carlos-based Motion Pro, a tool maker for high-performance racing applications. Mr. Mathews says he has raised more than $250,000 for ALS patient services.

"I wouldn't wish this [disease] on anyone and I can assure you everyone at Forbes Norris wishes they were out of work," Mr. Mathews says. "This is a very difficult disease: When your nerves stop working, your body stops working. I cannot imagine trying to figure it all out without the Forbes Norris people, and the good news is that I don't have to.

"Nor does anyone else with my problem. [The clinic] accepts all ALS people who roll through the door, even if there is no insurance or money. ... They are able to give us everything, except a cure," he says.

One expense that Mr. Mathews wouldn't have to worry about in any case is prescription drugs. His medication consists largely of vitamin supplements, Ms. Mathews says, because no one yet knows the cause, the cure or the progression of the disease. "It's just so different in everybody," Ms. Mathews says.

Time to contemplate

Mr. Mathews' troubles began with the loss of his voice, but over the past three years, he has been gradually losing control of his body. "My breathing is getting to be a problem," he says, due to a progressive inability to control the muscles of his diaphragm. He says he now uses a ventilator at night to help him breathe.

"Some people lose their legs first and never lose their speech. It moves around," Mr. Mathews says. "It's a downhill slide."

"I have always said that if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I'd never want people to say 'that poor guy,' but rather I'd want them to slap each other on the back and say, 'That son of a gun sure had fun while he was here,'" Mr. Mathews says. "The 'bus' is a far simpler solution than to have you and your family told that you have ALS."

With a typical progression of three to five years, ALS is a disease that allows time for contemplation. Mr. Mathews says he'd gone to church off and on earlier in his life, beginning with his employment by Mr. Carlsen.

"Boy, you go to church with me. I'll buy you breakfast," Mr. Carlsen reportedly said to him back when he was first hired. That's what got him in the door. He says he was getting serious about religion before ALS struck, but that the ALS didn't change his views. "I generally do things with seriousness or don't do them," he says.

When he realized the gravity of his situation, he says he prayed for relief "if it was in God's time and plan. But I asked for my Lord to never leave me alone, never let go of me, never lose touch. He has answered me fully and I feel no, zero, anxiety," he says. "Go figure. I don't have an explanation for it."

His current ambitions are to see his children complete their educations and settle into careers, he says. "Other than that, my goal is to do what I can, not complain, and be able to deal with it," he says. "I'm very happy to have been here, but I believe I will be taken care of around the bend. I am satisfied to go on."

More information on ALS

The Forbes Norris MDA/ALS Research Center in San Francisco is one of six centers nationwide dedicated to the treatment of ALS. The address is 2324 Sacramento St., Suite 150, San Francisco, 94115. Call 415-923-3604 or visit for more information.

The ALS Association Web site at contains comprehensive information about the disease, news, advocacy opportunities and links to the Web sites of ALS-related organizations.


Copyright © 2003 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.