A tribute to Matt Walsh: Much more than a teacher, even in passing

Douglas Meyer, Kwansei Gakuin University


On October 6, 2011, Matthew Isaac Walsh (a.k.a. Big Matt) passed away after a brief fight with liver cancer. Matt is well known, both in JALT circles and for his volunteer efforts for the homeless in Osaka. He will be missed by many.

Matt came to Kansai around 1987 after teaching EFL in Taiwan. Some of Matt’s first friends remember him attending Kyoto Gaidai, going to a Shorinji Kenpo dojo, and being a short order cook in the Gion Kaikan building in Kyoto. Matt was even a stagehand at the Minamiza Kabuki Theater. In the 90s, while he was busy on the DJ scene, he became a fixture in the Osaka foreign community. He was a big guy, but could bike around Lake Biwa for fun. He loved his tech toys. And he was married for 15 years, but had no children of his own.

I first met him in 2008, as a colleague in Osaka. When I was struggling in a full-time teaching position at an old conservative high school, he would come over on his day off to support me and make sure things went smoothly. He struck me as someone very magnanimous, someone you could count on.

It was at this school that he started teaching content-based social awareness classes, and began his volunteer group, HATO. He would buy rice and use the school church kitchen as a place for volunteers (friends) to make onigiri, which would later be taken to the nearby Shin-Imamiya area and given to the homeless. In November, we organized a clothing drive through our schools, and must have delivered a ton of warm winter clothes to the same needy folks, three years in a row.

If that wasn’t enough, he also joined a volunteer group that went up to Tohoku during the Golden Week vacation. Matt was not just upset about the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami; he wanted to do something about it. A loosely organized group of highly motivated volunteers gave up their spring holidays to help elderly folks clean out some of the dirt and debris that was stuck under houses because of the March 11 tsunami. Matt helped organize the group, and everyone got their hands dirty helping people out. That’s just the kind of guy Matt was.

In JALT, Matt was active on many levels. Osaka JALT was fortunate to have him as a Member at Large and Program Chair, where his advice and organizational skills meant a lot. He was also active in a few SIGs as well. He volunteered for Pan-SIG, serving as co-editor for the conference proceedings, which took months to complete. Moreover, his work for Global Issues in Language Education (GILE) resulted in a Best of JALT award for 2010.

But Matt avoided the spotlight and never seemed to do anything for selfish reasons. Even when diagnosed with cancer, he kept the news to himself. Only a few of his closest friends knew how short his remaining time was. Almost all of his friends were shocked to find outabout his liver cancer via a Facebook group (Friends of Matt), which quickly grew to over 300 members. And since he didn’t want any visitors (save a few), Facebook became the primary source of information for his friends and colleagues. It remains as an online memorial, a place to share old photos, stories, and memories of Matt.

Matt didn’t want a traditional wake or a big fuss in his memory. Instead he asked his friends to get together outside and go for a little hike. And so on a beautiful fall day (October 8) over 40 friends and some students gathered for a short memorial hike in the hills overlooking Kyoto. We stopped at a small mountain shrine, and some of us shared a couple of memories and words about how Matt’s selfless spirit had affected our lives. One of his students talked about how he opened her eyes to social inequalities in the world, and how to take action at the local level. You see, Matt was not just an ordinary teacher.

Afterwards, many of us lingered in Maruyama Park, chatting and learning more about Matt and how he spent his last couple of months up at Lake Biwa, enjoying the beach and spending precious time with his girlfriend.

Eventually, this eclectic group slowly walked over to a Kyoto izakaya, and raised a glass in honor of Matthew Walsh, age 45. As good as they get.

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