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Central York's fifes and drums founder, a 'visionary' and mentor, dies in beach accident

When Kenneth Matthews decided to start the Central York Middle School Fifes and Drums Corps in 1971, he did it to raise money for the music program leading up to the nation's bicentennial celebration in 1976.

But he thought it would only last a few years.

“The kids liked it so much they wouldn’t let him stop doing it,” said current director Rick Worley.

Matthews had said he would continue as long as there was interest — and now the group is planning for its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Kenneth Matthews, who led the Central York Middle School Fifes and Drums until his retirement in 2003, died unexpectedly last Thursday, July 2, 2020. Matthews is pictured here teaching the group in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

The group lost its founder Thursday in a beach accident in Avalon, New Jersey.

Matthews, 73, was body surfing around 6:30 p.m. when a big wave caused him to hit his head underwater, according to witnesses. He died in the hospital a short time later.

The news was shocking, Worley said, noting that Matthews' wife told him over the weekend that earlier on Thursday her husband had ridden 6 to 8 miles, painted a room, made a pot of soup and walked on the beach with her for an hour.

"What a healthy and young 73," he said.

More:York man killed in body surfing accident at N.J. beach

Since then, there's been an outpouring of support in the Central community from those who say he was a great motivator and mentor — a patient and kind man who awakened a love of music and taught them lessons they carry to this day.

"I was in trouble all the time. I was the class clown, but I was a nerd," said Nathan Baturka, who was in Matthews' group in the early 1980s.

But Matthews was always patient and calm and gave him second chances, and for that he respects him to this day, he said.

Michael Wagner, a member of Central's school board for about 15 years, said he saw the impact it had on middle schoolers at such a crucial age, and it inspired him to volunteer with the group for years.

Ed Gotwalt of Adams County, playing Thomas Penn, talks with Central York Middle School Fife and Drum Coops director Rick Worley after an opening ceremony for the York Fair at Utz Arena Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Gowalt and York Mayor Kim Bracey reenacted a 1765 ceremonial transfer of charter during the ceremony and the corps performed.

"His willingness to include anyone who wanted to be a part of the music program and find a way for them to be successful and self-confident," Wagner said, made him a great teacher.

He was patient and precise — qualities he passed on to the students — Wagner said, noting that if he told them they’d be back at 9:20 p.m., they’d be there at 9:19 or before.

Fifes and drums hearken back to colonial times, when young boys, typically under the age of 16, would accompany troops and sound the fife, a high-pitched flute that could be heard over gunshots, Worley said.

More:Annual Articles of Confederation celebration draws families

Community groups continue to honor the tradition — especially in the Northeast, in states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, he said, but it's rare in a public school.

"Starting something like that here in York County, particularly in a public school setting, was visionary at the time," Worley said. "No one had done that."

Kenneth Matthews, who led the Central York Middle School Fifes and Drums until his retirement in 2003, died unexpectedly last Thursday, July 2, 2020. Matthews is pictured here teaching the group in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Wagner said the fifes and drums corps was always one of the most visible groups in the district, performing 20 to 25 times per year at everything from York Revolution games to high school groundbreakings.

And Matthews was so passionate about the music and community that he remained active long after his retirement.

"Even though he retired in 2003, he was never far from the fifes and drums, sometimes showing up at summer rehearsals just to stop by," noted a Facebook post on the group's page Friday.

Worley, who became a close friend over the past 17 years, confirmed this and said he was always up for a visit after rehearsal and made time for everybody.

Former Central York Middle School Fifes and Drums director Kenneth Matthews (left) stands with current director Rick Worley (right.) Matthews died unexpectedly last Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Following his retirement, Matthews would be invited to music department parties, and "everybody always wanted to talk to Ken," he said.

The old adage of “give you the shirt off his back” really was true for Matthews, Worley said, adding that it would be nothing for him to offer to paint rooms in their homes.

Before Matthews died, he and Worley were planning a "muster," or traditional gathering of dozens of drums and fifes groups, for the 50th anniversary celebration, which would include a parade in downtown York City, culminating in performances and fireworks in PeoplesBank Park.

Worley said it would be the first weekend in October 2021, and he still plans to go through with it to honor Matthews' legacy.

It's what Matthews would have wanted, he said. "He would tell us 'get on with the work.'"

Kuhner Associates Funeral Directors Inc. is handling funeral services for the Matthews family. No services have been planned at this time.