Alumni span generations, pass along university legacy and pride
James “Jim” Laney (’79, ’82 M.Ed.), professor of teacher education and administration at UNT, carries more than his grandfather’s name and stately stature. The family photos and teaching certificates of former North Texas president James Carl Matthews hanging in Laney’s office show that love for education and UNT long has been a family affair.
And other families’ pride runs just as deep. More than 25 family members of Leah Woodruff Hatfield (’77) attended the university through four generations. The scrapbooks chronicling her parents’ courtship at the university have helped her understand why.
Family patriarch and businessman Cecil “Zeke” Martin (’51, ’51 M.Ed.) always credited the university for his success, even naming his business ventures Mean Green Grocery and Martin Eagle Oil Co. His sons and several grandchildren run the family business and carry on the family tradition of green pride.
The eldest of four children of Nigerian immigrants, Cynthia Uduebor (’00) paved the way for her younger brothers to join UNT. The university not only helped her achieve a childhood dream of becoming an attorney, but also propelled her three brothers forward and helped their family through loss.
UNT’s journey from a teachers training college to a major research university has been a 119-year evolution that belongs to thousands. Intertwined with the history of its alumni, the university’s legacy encompasses their personal milestones. College years are filled with self discovery as students build friendships, fall in love and pursue dreams. And as alumni continue their lives and grow families, the university often remains home — part of a heritage steeped with tradition and powerful legacies that reach across generations and span accomplishment and heartbreak.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized how important my family history is and how North Texas has played such a big part,” Leah says. “For many of us and our family members, North Texas is a way of life.”
In 1920, J.C. Matthews (’25) left his family’s peanut farm in Thalia, yearning to pursue a teaching degree. With the welcome handshake from then-university president W.H. Bruce at the train depot, Matthews’ life at North Texas had begun.
After graduation, he married classmate Rena Mae Waggoner (’25) and spent nearly 60 years — as a student, teacher, administrator, father and grandfather — creating educational opportunities at North Texas. During Matthews’ senior year, the 1925 Yucca senior class page dedication fortuitously read: “… We are a distinct link in the chain, and we shall never break faith with our Alma Mater. We look with admiration on the classes which have preceded us, and anticipate achievements of glory for those which shall follow us.”
The university embraced Matthews, shaping his career and family. He was director of the Demonstration School, North Texas’ first dean of education and later vice president. In 1952, Matthews was named the university’s eighth president and served 16 years.
His legacy includes implementing the first doctoral education program in 1951, overseeing racial desegregation in the 1950s and sustaining a passion for education in three more generations — three children, 10 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, as well as numerous other extended family members. His sons, Lester (’48) and Kenneth (’65), and daughter, Maydell (’52), called North Texas home.
“The campus was my playground,” says Kenneth, who explored the children’s section of Voertman’s Bookstore and rode his bike to listen to practicing music students. “I didn’t know what I had until I left.”
As students at the Demonstration School and the college, Matthews’ children were products of their father’s commitment to education and started their own families at North Texas. Lester and Maydell each met their spouses — Betty Sharp (’50) and Sam Laney (’51 M.B.A.), descendants of other North Texas families — on campus. A 1953 June wedding reception for Maydell and Sam in Marquis Hall began a long tradition of family reunions and holiday celebrations on campus, mostly in the old President’s House.
Jim Laney, Sam and Maydell’s son, says he and Mark, his twin brother, roamed their grandparents’ home and the campus during visits — going to ball games with “Papa,” who always wore a three-piece suit and smelled of peppermints, and playing in “Mamo’s” gardens.
“We cut our teeth at the President’s House,” he says.
Mark Laney (’80), a pediatric neurologist serving as president and CEO of Heartland Health in St. Joseph, Mo., modeled his career after that of his Uncle Kenneth, a pediatrician in College Station who serves on the board of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“I used to follow him around, reading his science books when he was in college,” Mark says, adding that the university and President Matthews were integral to their lives growing up. “My grandfather was a very wise and thoughtful man, telling wonderful stories that illustrated learning points.”
Yet, teaching wasn’t just the domain of President Matthews. After following her father and earning her education degree, Maydell taught first grade in Denton for more than 35 years.
“My mother could have taught any student to read,” Jim says. “I knew from a young age that I, too, wanted to be a teacher and that I wanted to teach at the college level.”
In addition to educators Maydell and Jim, Lester’s daughter, Janet Wyrick (’75, '79 M.Ed.), is a principal in Killeen. And Kenneth’s son and daughter-in-law live and teach in Denton. Will Matthews (’99 M.Ed.) and Amy Foraker Matthews (’07 M.Ed.) studied for their graduate degrees in Matthews Hall, named for Will’s grandfather.
While the Matthews family may be one of a few North Texas families who literally grew up on campus, they are not alone in having deep university roots. After Natalie Hammack Woodruff (’51) passed away two years ago, Leah retrieved boxes of her mother’s mementos and scrapbooks packed with faded green pennants, Homecoming programs, letters and photos.
“I knew I had to find my mother’s wedding gown and my parents’ class rings,” Leah says, holding the gold North Texas rings together tight in her hand.
For Leah, North Texas memories are intertwined with her family history, and spending time on campus keeps her close to them. A UNT Alumni Association board member, she volunteers at commencements because she loves listening to graduates’ stories and sharing her own.
“With the pride our family has for North Texas, it’s just something I’m supposed to do,” she says.
Natalie, a member of the Green Jackets, Meritum and Mary Arden Club and a class officer for two years, wrote weekly letters to her parents on school stationery. She detailed her college life, including her first date with Jack “Ace” Woodruff (’51), a member of the Geezles. A later letter home would announce their engagement.
Leah’s great aunt, Grace Woodruff Cartwright (’29), was the first female member of the university’s board of regents and a UNT Distinguished Alumna. Cartwright, who died in 2003, was initiated into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame for Horticulture in 1985.
“Grace was the matriarch of the family and a strong role model,” Leah says. “She was a forward-looking woman.”
Cartwright was one of 10 children — four who attended North Texas in the 1920s. As chair of buildings and grounds at North Texas, she placed hundreds of trees around Fouts Field, transplanted from her ranch in Parker County, and brought stones to create a rock garden between Willis Library and the Music Building. The adjacent Grace Cartwright Library Plaza serves as a gathering place for student picnics, fairs, concerts and an occasional wedding engagement.
Collecting memorabilia for her Mean Green room in her Dallas home, Leah keeps school spirit alive for her family. She’s attended nearly every football game since 1987, raising her son, Bryan Ross Hatfield (’07), on Mean Green football since he was 4.
Bryan, a Talons member like his dad Scott Hatfield (’77), lived in Kerr Hall, just as his mother did.
“It’s amazing that so many of my family members found their home at UNT,” Bryan says. “It gives me a great sense of pride that I’m walking in their footsteps.”
Like Grace Cartwright, Cecil “Zeke” Martin left behind a love for all things green that still flows through his family.
One of seven brothers growing up in Denton, five who attended North Texas, Martin played basketball, tennis and football, receiving all-conference honors as a quarterback three seasons in a row and playing in the 1948 Salad Bowl. In 1989, he was inducted into the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame.
Before his passing in 2006, he was an active member of the UNT Lettermen’s Association and founded the Zeke Martin Letterman Golf Classic, a UNT scholarship fundraising effort.
But his dedication to UNT surpassed sports.
“Everything was North Texas. He loved UNT,” says his son, Gary Martin, who attended North Texas in the 1970s along with his brother, Steve. “He would say if North Texas hadn’t given him a scholarship, he wouldn’t have amounted to anything.”
After marrying college sweetheart Bettye Lassiter Martin (’49) in 1950, Zeke played professionally for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tigers before returning home to coach at Denton High School. He eventually served as Denton mayor in the late 1960s and helped get Interstate 35 expanded west to Fort Worth.
Married for 57 years, Bettye and Zeke built their home on Bonnie Brae Street, yards from today’s newest athletic facilities.
“Zeke was so proud of how the sports facilities have grown,” says Bettye, who still plays weekly bridge games in her home with friends she met at North Texas more than 50 years ago. “North Texas was so good to us.”
Zeke opened his first gas station on the corner of Highland Street and Avenue C. At the same location, he ran Mean Green Grocery and Zeke’s Drive-in, a hamburger shack catering to students in the 1960s. Martin Eagle Oil Co. still is soaring 50 years later under the direction of his sons and grandchildren.
Following in Zeke’s footsteps, both Gary and Steve grew up cheering at Mean Green games and played intramural athletics during college. Kris Martin, Gary’s son and Zeke’s oldest grandson, works in commercial sales at Eagle Oil and met his recent bride, Mandy Rainbolt Martin (’08), at UNT.
“It’s an honor to follow what my grandfather, dad and uncle have done,” he says.
Zeke’s office is still intact, filled with his treasures: photos of his family, trophies and newspaper clippings detailing sports highlights, community volunteer awards and more than 35 eagle statues.
“North Texas made him,” Steve says.
After immigrating to New York from Nigeria, Cynthia Uduebor’s family moved frequently but eventually found their way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Cynthia attended six elementary schools and three high schools but graduated early at 16 and transferred to UNT from a community college a year later.
A resident assistant and one of the first UNT Eagle Ambassadors, she helped plan the first Diversity Day on campus.
“UNT is where I discovered myself. I blossomed here,” says Cynthia, who continued on to Duke Law School to become a labor and employment law attorney. “UNT is so diverse, not just ethnically, but religiously and culturally. There are so many ways you can be involved. You can really do things here.”
Like their older sister, Otis (’06) and Valentine (’08) seized opportunities at UNT to become resident assistants and student leaders. Otis was crowned Homecoming King in 2005.
Suffering from sickle cell disease since childhood, Otis beat the odds of surviving past 5 years old. Through his activities at UNT, he gave speeches to create awareness about the disease and planned to create a national campaign for education and research after his 2006 graduation. But a year after receiving his diploma, he died from the illness.
Today, all of the Uduebors are the caretakers of the Otis Uduebor Sickle Cell Foundation, their brother’s dream organization, with Cynthia serving as president.
“Otis was making a difference for sickle cell, and now he’s passed the torch on to me,” says Cynthia, who scaled back her law practice and volunteer work — except her role on the UNT Alumni Association board — to run the foundation. “The commitment to the association is important. I have the opportunity to help shape alumni, the future and our legacy of UNT.”
And the Uduebor tradition at UNT lives on. Lovett, the youngest sibling, created the first student organization for sickle cell as a freshman last year.
Keeping family ties alive at UNT is important to all of the families as they preserve the tradition of what the university means to them. An education scholarship named for Rena Mae and J.C. Matthews set a Matthews family precedent. Lester and Betty became members of the President’s Council giving society, and Sam established a scholarship in his wife’s name after she died in 2005.
“I knew how Maydell felt about this scholarship,” he says. “We couldn’t have pleased her more.”
The Matthews twins continue to develop opportunities for learning for UNT students. Mark helped build clinical rotations for third- and fourth-year UNT Health Science Center medical students at Cook Children’s Medical Center. And Jim now serves as assistant chair for initial certification in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration.
Pride continues to run deep in the Woodruff family. As a Mean Green season ticket holder, Leah shares her parents’ school spirit and is carrying on her Aunt Grace’s commitment to providing top-rate facilities for UNT by serving on the alumni association’s ad hoc stadium committee.
“Grace was involved when Fouts Field was built in 1952, and now I’m helping too,” says Leah, adding that her aunt also endowed several academic scholarships.
From one generation to the next, UNT families are growing tradition-rich lineages with each new family member adding to the North Texas legacy. Their ties are the strength of UNT’s history and the promise of the brightest future.
“UNT has so much to offer,” Valentine Uduebor says. “When I have kids, UNT is definitely someplace I’ll want them to attend.”
As Leah mingles with new alumni at commencement, she encourages them to venture out into the world and create remarkable lives. She also urges them always to remember their alma mater.
“Somewhere down the road in your life, this place will whisper to you,” she says. “And you need to listen.”