In his life and in his death, Matt Rivers’ father shaped his son’s life.
As a young boy, Rivers worshipped his dad – a teacher, coach and school administrator in Sealy, a small town about 50 miles west of Houston.
“Kids loved him and teachers loved him,” Rivers recalled. “He always got such joy from his job. I was attached to him at the hip. And I always wanted to be just like him.”
Out of nowhere, his seemingly healthy father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He succumbed to the disease when Rivers was 10 years old.
Suddenly, his mother, who was also a teacher, was working two jobs to make ends meet. Young Matt had to grow up fast, learning to care for himself in many ways – waking himself, feeding himself, ensuring that homework and chores were done without supervision.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if my father were still alive,” Rivers said. “I know it sounds weird to say that, but it has defined who I am and made me grow up and be mentally tough. Other obstacles I’ve faced later in life seem kind of simple.
“It’s made me the person I am today in a positive way.”
Rivers, 31, has served as principal of Wall Middle School since August. He came to San Angelo initially to play baseball at Angelo State University. (His father was also a college baseball player.)
Once here, he reconnected with Tammy Gully, who taught at his father’s school in Sealy and cared for Matt and his sister as Mr. Rivers was treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center. She said Rivers embodied and embraced the work ethic of a Wall farmer on her family’s farm, picking vegetables, hauling goats and driving tractors. And he coached Little League baseball.
He taught special education and speech, and coached at Grape Creek for three years before being asked to join the Three Rivers Cooperative as its transition coordinator. In that job, he helped prepare Grape Creek and Miles students and graduates for life after high school – be that higher education, trade school or working. He also served in interim and assistant principal positions at Grape Creek before joining the Wall school system.
He likes the fit here.
“There’s no other way to put it – people are just nicer out here” than in the Houston area, he said. “I love San Angelo.”
He also loves his job – everything from supporting his teachers to relating his story of overcoming personal struggles to students to attending every school function he can.
“I don’t view this as work,” Rivers said. “I look forward to Thursday and Friday night football games. It’s a community event. You learn a lot about kids then.”
It’s how his father approached his service as an educator – with kindness, humility and encouragement. As a new father, Rivers hopes to also channel his father’s example in raising his daughter.
“I want to be able to inspire her like my dad inspired me,” he said.