DADE CITY — The C-Man always came home from work smelling of fertilizer, with white powder in his hair and on his eyebrows.
Willie Charles "C-Man" Mathews worked at the Lykes Pasco plant nearly 30 years, mostly out back where the trains come in. His family says he mixed fertilizer, then operated machinery that got it into rail cars.
He never made much money, and his career was bookended by an industrial accident and a debilitating stroke.
In between, though, Mr. Mathews drank deeply of fishing and family, which helped put the hard times in perspective.
Mr. Mathews was born in 1932 in Pike County, Ala., and was a small child when his mother died. An aunt raised him as one of her own — literally. His cousins, who were younger than Mr. Mathews and resembled him, grew up believing he was their brother. Some of those cousins wound up in Quincy, Fla. In the early 1960s, Mr. Mathews accompanied them on a trip to scout out jobs in Pasco County.
They went back home. He stayed.
Before long, he was working for Lykes Pasco and raising a family with his wife, the former Geneva Day.
His family calls Mr. Mathews a toucher. "He was a humble, soft-spoken person," said Gwen Berry, his daughter. "He didn't know a stranger. He would speak to people, kiss their hands. That's one thing people loved about him."
He loved the quiet of pine forests and the focus of fishing. He took his daughters deep into the Florida woods. "I thought I'd see Bigfoot," his daughter said.
Then all of a sudden, a lake would open up.
He baited his hook and theirs with worms, then began a dialogue with the depths. They left with strings of brim and catfish, to be coated in cornmeal, salt and pepper and dropped into a skillet.
Mr. Mathews was more tactile than verbal, though a beer or two might get him talking. He fixed anything that broke without comment and built what needed to be built — a chicken coop one day, another day an oil-drum grill.
On his vacation every August, the family drove to Quincy, where Mr. Mathews helped his cousins harvest cotton and tobacco. "To me, that was like history," Berry said. "Who goes out in the field and picks tobacco, picks cotton?"
He was even more generous with his daughters. As a student at Florida State University, Berry started working on her father for a car.
"I bugged him and bugged him," she said. "Finally, I wore him down."
He gave her his Chevy Impala, then rode with friends to work until he could buy another car.
He appeared to accept bad breaks as a part of life. An accident with a machine at Lykes once pulled the skin off his chest, his family said. He spent weeks recovering, then returned to work.
In 1991, a stroke paralyzed one side of his body.
Mr. Mathews lived in nursing homes in Miami and Dade City.
He would never fish again.
Geneva died of a heart attack in 1995, at age 60. Mr. Mathews found the Lord that same year, said Berry, who is a minister.
Two years ago, doctors amputated his leg.
Since the stroke, he had also lost the ability to speak, though his family could understand him.
"When he said stuff with gestures, you understood what he said," Berry said." But his leathery face looked like a road map of hardship.
Several months ago, she brought her father to Newport News, Va. He was at her home last fall for a Friday night prayer meeting.
From his wheelchair, he renewed his commitment to God. "I said, 'Dad, do you accept the Lord?' He said, 'Yeah,'" Berry said.
He knew what she meant by the question, and she understood his answer.
A series of recent infections, coupled with strokes over the years, had further weakened his body. Mr. Mathews died Feb. 12, in Newport News. He was 79.
"Dad had a tough life, and he has conquered it all," his daughter said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.