My Talk With Dad

Tom Matlack finally asked his dad the things he most wanted to know.

James Matlack, my dad, earned his BA from Princeton in 1960, his MA from Oxford in 1962, and Ph.D. from Yale in 1965. He was a leader in the civil rights and anti-war movements. He taught American Literature at Cornell from 1965 to 1969 and at the University of Massachusetts from 1970 to 1978. He served as an administrator at Hampshire College from 1978 to 1983. Matlack then worked as the Director of the Washington, D.C., Office of the American Friends Service Committee from 1983 until his retirement in 2003, traveling frequently to Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia on service missions. He met my mom when he was 16 and they have now been married 52 years. He has three children and six grandchildren, and has retired to Rockport, Maine, where he is Program Director for the Camden Conference on International Affairs.

I’m 46. My dad is 73. I wouldn’t say we are close. I can’t really explain why. He tried to save the world and I have tried to conquer it. I am not sure either of us succeeded, though in certain ways I think my dad had more enduring success than I have had. Yet when we are together there is always an awkward silence. He often tells me how proud he is of me and that he loves me. But it is hard to break through some unspoken barrier between father and son who chose very different paths and yet remain similar. He reminds me of where I came from and, in so doing, makes me uncomfortable of my own inescapable shadow. Still, there are things I want to know, questions I’d like to ask. So I decided to talk to my dad as a kind of Father’s Day gift to both of us.

What I discovered, unexpectedly, is that my dad is a pretty cool guy.

Click through the slide show to see what I asked and what my Dad had to say:

Next: Man Against Nature

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About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. Louise Rotholz says:

    Hi, Tom-

    I took a couple of courses with your dad at Cornell in spring and fall of 1970 (so he was not at U Mass then). He was a wonderful lecturer and one of the teachers I admired most at Cornell. He definitely influenced my views on race. He was also a tough grader, which did not help my GPA at all, but it was worth it. I was interested and pleased to hear of the direction his life took and that he is alive and well in beautiful Rockport, Maine.

  2. Tom, It took me a couple year’s after my Father Passed away in September of 1999, to understand who he was but more importantly The man I thought I had to be…
    I think our Fathers, seem so Hero like as children in our eye’s! As we age and mature, They have exspectation’s and we tend to think or believe what they want for us, is Not in our plan’s. So we fighnt it every step along the way.
    Tom, My Dad many times through out my childhood made me feel WEAK and Unexcepted! Growing up My eye’s saw his true streagth! I feared his streagth’s and he taught me that this was RESPECT… Sadly year’s after his Death I understood RESPECT in my understanding was not the true meaning. My Respect was out of Fear! That took me awhile too fully understand this Impact in my life.
    This is what I do and Have alway’s known of my Father! He relentlessly worked Hard for my Brother’s and my Sister’s! Nothing Came easy and This to the very end is what I had questioned in my own life after he passed away! His Legacy in my eye’s has a diffrent meaning now than before 2002. I am so-proud to say I am his son and His hand’s and hard work in life is the most Important to me. I love him and Yes I maybe diffrent than him on many level’s both as a Father and a Man. I have found we all take alittle bit from each person that we saw Influenced our live’s. Then as we Mature, All those Little thing’s mold us into the men we are! Thank You. Rick Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

  3. Jean Matlack says:

    What an interesting guy your dad is, Tom!.
    One of the striking things that comes through this conversation is that despite your returning to the father/son theme over and over, in so many instances that you and your dad address the fathers were not present, or the men were not in family situations etc. Makes it clear how major a shift your generation is in the midst of, and how timely your focus is!

    • Thanks for showing open interest in your son’s cause, Jean Matlack, in your comment here and your own interview in May. Discovering his TGMP work is one of the best things that’s happened for me in the past few months. It does my heart good to see Tom honoring his father and mother while finding his own way!

  4. Excellent interview, Tom. I am very glad that you were able to sit down and connect with your father like this. As much as we think we know our dads at times, there is always more to the story—small (or in your case, large) details that would have gone otherwise untold unless you spend quality talk time.

    I enjoyed this. You both are good men.


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