I want to tell you about a hero of mine. He was not only my hero, but a good friend and a trusted colleague to many. Much of this community’s progress toward ending homelessness was guided by his vision and moral clarity. He was a quiet fighter. And a strong one. And now, after a five-year battle with cancer, we’ve lost him.
Vince Matulionis passed away on Sept. 26 at the age of 54. He’ll be dearly missed, but it will be impossible to forget him. Many of you knew Vince or knew of his tireless efforts at United Way of King County to end homelessness. He was, put simply, a beautiful soul.
Like so many people, I trace my involvement in the work directly to Vince. It started about 14 years ago when I opened The Seattle Times to a big article about ambitious plans to end homelessness spearheaded by United Way — and, more specifically, Vince. There was something about that article and the audacious vision that bit me. “That takes guts,” I said to myself. I soon called Vince confessing that I knew next to nothing about human services. But I figured that anyone with the ambition to claim that he and his organization could end homelessness could probably use help! Several months later, I was on board, offering to assist.
In the years that followed, as United Way and partners launched the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, the Committee to End Homelessness and later All Home, Vince was my gentle and encyclopedic-wise guide. He was that rare person who knew all the technical intricacies of housing and services, yet never forgot the real people they are meant for and the dignity and respect those people deserve. This was never on brighter display than at United Way’s periodic Community Resource Exchanges, extraordinary events when barriers between those who have homes and those who don’t dissolve for a few hours, with everyone acknowledging a common humanity. That is the spirit of Vince Matulionis through and through.
Vince was a hero of mine, a good friend and a trusted colleague. There are countless people in this community who could say those same things. What made him special was his selflessness. He had no agenda other than to solve some of society’s inequities and give people hope and a chance to succeed. Even as we had setbacks — and of course we did — Vince was unbowed and unchanged, working with the same quiet, kind tenacity as always. Literally thousands of individuals and families now have a roof overhead and a meal on the table thanks, in part, to Vince’s tenacity.
Vince created a vision that grabbed me deeply. It will forever impact me. But this is not at all about me; this is about the vision and mission that was created at United Way that likely would never have happened if not for Vince Matulionis. His enormous capacity for empathy ensured that the focus of his work was always the hardship of other people, not his own. That’s something for all of us to ponder.
We can go through life pretty fast. We meet a lot of people — a lot of special and great people. But perhaps in the end, there are only a few people who, in one way or another, deeply touch our heart and our soul. People whom we respect. People who feed our hunger to make a difference, as big a difference as we can possibly dream of making. People who stretch our hearts and minds. People we would follow anywhere. Vince was that person, that kind of spirit and friend for me.
So many of us will miss Vince immensely. My relationship with him was a little like “Tuesdays with Morrie.” If a couple of months passed without us getting together, Vince would reach out and say, “Got time for coffee?” I always found the time and was always glad I did. I can’t believe that’s passed.
The void Vince leaves is large. And, as we all can clearly see, the work is unfinished. That could get us down. But he set the bar higher. The way we honor him — and the values we share — is to grieve, yes, but also to hold the course and be unwavering in our commitments. Every man, woman and child in King County can and must have a roof overhead. Decency demands it. We must get it done.
On behalf of United Way of King County, the United Way Board and the community at large, our thoughts and prayers are with Vince’s wife, Marsha, and their family and friends.
Dan Brettler is a board member at the United Way of King County and chairman and CEO at Car Toys and Wireless Advocates.