Standing on his terrace with a sweeping view of the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and the sandy shore of Long Beach, Dr. Matthew Jenkins has come a long way since his days as a youngster on his family’s farm in Alabama.
A self-made millionaire, Jenkins has traveled a road to success that has taken him to careers as an Air Force officer, veterinarian, entrepreneur, real estate mogul and philanthropist. In between he served as interim president of Tuskegee University to help save the financially struggling school, his alma mater.
“I couldn’t have done it without this woman,” Jenkins said recently with his arm around Roberta, his wife of 60 years, at their condo on Ocean Boulevard.
Jenkins, 84 and retired, has written a compelling autobiography, “Positive Possibilities: My Game Plan for Success,” detailing his early childhood and revealing the formula for his accomplishments. He said he hopes that it can be used as a textbook for young black men and women and others on how to be successful in life.
Dr. Alex Norman, professor emeritus at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-founder of Rethinking Long Beach, said on Facebook that it is “the most important book on African American leadership that I have read. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of African Americans in the United States.”
Norman said he was so inspired by Jenkins’s story and his strategic thinking that he didn’t put it down “until the second reading.” He said everyone should read the book because it really is a book on self-development.
Jenkins was born Sept. 26, 1933, on his family’s farm in Baldwin County, Ala. He writes in a graphic narrative how his father, John Wesley Jenkins, was beaten nearly to death in Mississippi in 1890 for warning black farmers that the Ku Klux Klan was plotting to take their farms or burn their crops.
His father’s attackers put his body onto a train headed for Pensacola, Fla., but a conductor dumped him alongside the railroad tracks. A good Samaritan, a Greek immigrant, found him and tended his wounds, saving his life.
“That act of compassion began a legacy for all 10 of his children to follow, including me,” Jenkins wrote. “Even on his deathbed, he encouraged us not to harbor anger against white people or anyone else who wrongs us. ‘Never let your mind be clouded with hate,’ he said.”
Jenkins worked hard on the farm. He got up at 5 a.m. when he was 5. His mother, Amelia Jenkins, assigned him tasks, like picking up pecans that fell from trees, lugging water to the animals, milking cows, driving a field truck at 7, a tractor at 8. He walked three miles to and from his elementary school every day.
Jenkins said his mother turned this struggle into a character-building experience.
“She taught us that a goal is a useless dream until you have a game plan to make it a reality,” he said. “She taught us to ‘plan your work and work your plan.’ She said you must have high standards in life. Whatever you do, be the best you can be.”
“Just one generation removed from the shackles of slavery, my parents led our family from a penniless existence to a thriving family farm enterprise in a supportive community,” Jenkins said. “Their accomplishment still amazes me.”
Jenkins was to use his mother’s philosophy throughout his life. He said he also learned that he needed to work harder than his competitors to succeed when he ran into discrimination from his draft board.
“During the bleakest days of the civil rights movement, brave activists drew inspiration from the belief that they would ‘find a way out of no way,’” he said. “That’s the key — train your mind to look for positive possibilities in any situation, no matter how bleak it may seem. Tough situations test your character. Many people miss out on opportunities during tough times — discrimination, hard financial times and countless other challenges.”
Jenkins graduated from Tuskegee in 1957 with a doctorate in veterinary medicine and joined the U.S. Air Force. He conducted research in animal diseases in Greenland and later established a rabies-eradication program there.
After leaving the Air Force, he started several animal clinics in the greater Long Beach area, as well as a real estate and property management company in eight states, dealing in mobile home parks.
The book contains many examples of situations in which Jenkins was angered by how he was being treated, but he always told himself to stay calm and collected and develop a strategy to find a solution to whatever the problem was.
Norman said that philosophy is what resonated most with him.
“It takes a cool head to win a hot game,” he said. “Dr. Jenkins would keep his head and turn his anger into outrage and then action to find a solution. It’s easy to be angry. What’s hard is to make sure your anger doesn’t destroy you.”
Norman also said that Jenkins was highly disciplined and would stick to his game plan when others would get mad, frustrated and walk away without solving anything.
The Jenkinses have established the Matthew and Roberta Jenkins Family Foundation that provides scholarships for African American students. Jenkins said he has great hope for humanity, for America and for youth. He plans on talking with school officials and other community leaders to see if there is some way his book can be used to help young people succeed.
“I will keep working for the things I believe in for as long as I draw breath, with Roberta at my side,” he said. “Our greatest pleasure in life is that we’ve been able to give back to others.”