Dr. Matthew Jenkins, a self-made millionaire who grew up on a farm in Alabama and quietly spent his money helping thousands of children get a better education in Long Beach, has died.
Jenkins passed away Sept. 14 from complications from heart disease, Roberta Jenkins, his wife of 61 years, said Wednesday. He was 85, just 12 days short of his 86th birthday.
“He knew his time was near, and he was ready to go,” she said. “He was so proud of helping others, especially young people. He gave so much back to his community.”
She said he also was especially proud of serving as interim president of Tuskegee University in Alabama in 2013 to help save his financially struggling alma mater.
Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, said Jenkins “has made a lasting impact on thousands of students” through his support “in endless ways” of Long Beach schools with his wife.
Steinhauser singled out the Math Collaborative which Jenkins heavily supported as “a game changer for helping students of color to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. That program has grown beyond Jordan High School to be replicated at Cabrillo and Wilson high schools.”
Doris Robinson, director of the Math Collaborative, said the tutorial program, which started in 2011, would not exist without the support of Jenkins and his wife.
“He did so much more than just give financial support,” Robinson said. “He talked to the boys often and motivated and inspired them with his wisdom and caring.”
More recently, Steinhauser said LBUSD is using Jenkins’s book, “Positive Possibilities: My Game Plan for Success,” in its Male Leadership Academies. When his book was published last year, Jenkins said he hoped it could 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 the book was “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.”
Jenkins and his wife also were praised by Dr. Jonathan Talberg, music professor and director of choral activities at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach.
“They have made an incredible impact on the classical voice area at CSULB,” Talberg said. In addition to scholarships, Jenkins was always willing to help a student who needed support to join one of the school’s European tours, or, even more importantly, to fly to an audition in New York, Chicago or Cincinnati, he said.
“Just last night, one of CSULB’s ‘Jenkins Scholars,’ Alannah Garnier, had her Metropolitan Opera debut in ‘Porgy and Bess,’” Talberg said. “I won’t say she wouldn’t have gotten there without the support of the Jenkinses, but it certainly would have been a lot more difficult. We will miss him very, very much.”
Jenkins traveled a long and varied road to success that has taken him to careers as an Air Force officer, veterinarian, entrepreneur, real estate mogul, philanthropist and interim president at Tuskegee University.
Legacy Of Forgiveness
Matthew Jenkins was born Sept. 26, 1933, on his family’s farm in Baldwin County, Ala. In his book, he wrote in a graphic narrative how his father, John Wesley Jenkins, was nearly beaten 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.
“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, getting up at 5 a.m. when he was 5 years old. His mother, Amelia Jenkins, assigned him chores, like picking up pecans that fell from trees, lugging water to the animals, milking cows, driving a field truck at 7 a.m., 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 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.”
Jenkins said the key is to train your mind to look for positive possibilities in any situation, no matter how bleak it may seem.
“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. “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 as a captain. He conducted research in animal diseases in Greenland and later established a rabies-eradication program there.
After leaving the Air Force, he started a private practice in Compton and developed a new anesthetic combination for dogs and cats, still used in many countries around the world. In 1970, he fought for racial justice and was responsible for resolutions accepted by the American Veterinarian Medical Association that resulted in the membership dismissal of any state that practiced discrimination against minority veterinarians.
In 1958, he married fellow Tuskegee graduate Roberta Jones and, together, they launched SDD Enterprises, Inc., a real estate investment and property management firm with businesses in eight states after he sold his veterinary practice. They also established the Matthew and Roberta Jenkins Family Foundation, awarding scholarships and grants to deserving students, institutions and local organizations.
Jenkins has been recognized by many civic organizations for his inspiration and leadership, including the Compton College Board of Trustees, Tuskegee University Board of Trustees, Charles Drew University Board of Directors, California State University Foundation Board, Claremont Graduate University Board, Bank of Finance and the Long Beach Planning Commission where he was a member.
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 develop a strategy to find a solution to whatever the problem was.
Norman said “the beauty” of Jenkins was that he made a positive out of negative energy.
“It’s easy to be angry,” Norman said. “What’s hard is to make sure your anger doesn’t destroy you. Matthew had the kind of leadership our polarized society demands today. He was a real thinker. There aren’t enough of them around now.”
Last year, when I interviewed Jenkins about his book, I asked him about his future. “I will keep working for the things I believe in for as long as I draw breath, with Roberta at my side,” he told me. “Our greatest pleasure in life is that we’ve been able to give back to others.”
Jenkins is survived by his wife, Roberta; children: Sabrae Derby (Brian), Derryl Jenkins and Dexter Jenkins (Della); six grandchildren; one great-grandchild, and many nephews and nieces.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 19, at Cornerstone Church, 1000 N. Studebaker Road. in Long Beach. The family suggests donations to Jordan High School and the Math Collaborative program in care of Doris Robinson, Jordan High, 6500 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, CA, 90805.