Our Founder and first President, Stan Mattson, died this week at age 86. A great man, but more importantly, a good man, he was many things to people over the course of his life – a friend, husband, father, mentor, father-figure, leader, President, Headmaster, Professor, truck stop owner, student, son, sailor, and a formidable “Words with Friends” player, to name just a few. It’s easy to say that he’s most well-known as the Founder and President of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, where he served for 34 years, from 1986-2020.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Stan for nearly half of his years at the Foundation, where I worked for Stan from 2006 until his retirement in 2020 and then succeeded him as President and continued to serve alongside him in his role on our board until his death Wednesday.
When you know someone that long, you learn their strengths and weaknesses, their core qualities of character and their flaws, their dreams and hopes, and their fears and insecurities. You learn about their loves and regrets and their successes and mistakes.
But I’ve also realized that the more you live life with someone, the more difficult it becomes to encapsulate that person in just a few words. It’s easy to say a few quick words about someone we know very shortly with an initial first impression. But with people like Stan, who I’ve worked alongside for so long, how do I even attempt, in just a few words, to describe the shape of his soul?
The other day, while I was grieving Stan, a thought occurred to me that I have long characterized the important men in my life – my dad, my grandfather, my son – using animal symbols.
My dad was a bear, a nickname others gave him when I was young. My grandfather, an alligator, the price, I suppose, of having a deep, northern Floridian accent in California, where he lived most of his life after his service in WWII. My son, though only on this earth for eighteen days, was a puppy, a symbol attached to him by three separate people in the first few days of his birth. And they all received gifts from others with those animals represented, including clothing, figurines, and nicknames.
On an intuitive level, people use elements of the natural world to describe an understanding that can’t be so easily put into words. With my father and grandfather, it came from long relationship with their personalities. In the case of my son, we knew a puppy was right even without knowing him for long at all.
So I asked myself, what animal symbolized Stan? The quick and ready answer was a lion. The core figure in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is Aslan, and Stan had a long association with C.S. Lewis as Founder and President of the Foundation. Over the years Stan, on behalf of the Foundation, received multiple gifts of lion statues, paintings, postcards, stuffed animals, pillows, and the like. Stan even wore his hair swept back sometimes in a way that made me think of a lion’s mane. He’d even become a sort of expert on which lions were most like Aslan. I remember him seeing footage of a lion representing Aslan in one of the many Lewis documentaries and remarking “that lion looks nothing like Aslan. The lion they put in the ‘C.S. Lewis: Dreamer of Narnia’ documentary – that lion was a real Aslan lion, full of power and majesty.”
Perfect… a lion. And Stan certainly had some aspects of a lion – nobility, courage, majesty. It would be fitting.
But the more I’ve sat on that thought, the more a different animal’s courage and nobility sprang forth in my mind.
Now don’t get upset just yet. Hear me out. I’m not talking about any mouse, but a very specific mouse that defies the stereotypes of mice that you might be imagining right now. I’m talking about C.S. Lewis’s creation Reepicheep the mouse, one of the heroes of Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The intrepid Reepicheep, noblest and bravest Chief of the Talking Mice.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was Stan’s favorite of the Narnia books, and Reepicheep was his favorite character. Stan, being a sailor and descendant of sailors, loved Lewis’s sailing narrative the most. But there is more to Stan’s “Reepicheepness” than that.
In memory of Stan, I’d like to share a few qualities that Stan shared with Reepicheep, though I’ll give the caveat that there was much more to Stan than this particular snapshot, just as a video of someone gives us more information than a single photo.
When someone has died and we memorialize them verbally, we often start with describing who they are. However, through the words of those giving tribute at a funeral service, we also come to find out who or what they served.
And maybe that’s because it’s the more important thing to know. For no matter how someone began, who or what they served in life tells us much more about their identity.
Was it money, success, youth, their pride? Was it family, friends, those in need? Was it their job or their hobbies? Was it God? Who or what was their main pursuit through life?
In the case of Reepicheep and Stan, they both faithfully served a High King.
In Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we are given a portrayal of Reepicheep as a mouse who faithfully and wholeheartedly follows after Aslan, even though exuberance, passion, and an overdeveloped sense of personal honor lead him to make mistakes along the way. He is dedicated to following Aslan even to the end of the known world, all the way to Aslan’s Country.
When I prayed for Stan the day before his death, I heard the words “pray for safe passage” and I saw an image of him on a small boat, sailing towards the sun on the open ocean, waving to us on shore as he embarked to eternity. Only when I was looking for something to quote in our social media announcement the next day, did I realize this image reminded me of Reepicheep sailing to Narnia’s country in the final section of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
At that moment, with a crunch, the boat ran aground. The water was too shallow now for it. “This,” said Reepicheep, “is where I go on alone.”
They did not even try to stop him, for everything now felt as if it had been fated or had happened before. They helped him to lower his little coracle. Then he took off his sword (“I shall need it no more,” he said) and flung it far away across the lilied sea. Where it fell it stood upright with the hilt above the surface.
Then he bade them goodbye, trying to be sad for their sakes; but he was quivering with happiness. Lucy, for the first and last time, did what she had always wanted to do, taking him in her arms and caressing him.
Then hastily he got into his coracle and took his paddle, and the current caught it and away he went, very black against the lilies. But no lilies grew on the wave; it was a smooth green slope. The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave’s side. For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep’s on the very top.
Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.
A class of fifth graders once wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis asking him what some of the characters in Prince Caspian represented as allegories. Lewis responded:
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books “represents” something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way … So the answer to your first two questions is that Reepicheep and Nikabrik don’t, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like R, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like N.
Like the character of Reepicheep, Stan lived a life of devotion to “seeking Heaven.” He constantly wanted to learn more about God through beauty, goodness, and truth. Stan learned about God through the Bible and through sermons, church attendance and the like, but he also learned through lectures, books, audiobooks, and conversations with others. Given his energy and his high level of extraversion (also like Reepicheep), he most often was found in conversation with people about God, sharing pieces of his testimony and hearing those of others around him.
Stan was known for an unwavering dedication to his calling in life, given to him as early as 1972, to lead an effort to influence the world for Christ especially in academia, the arts, and the culture at large. An important piece of our history as a nonprofit organization is that we didn’t start with C.S. Lewis in 1972, but with that calling first. C.S. Lewis came into it when a group of Stan and his fellows asked what previous Christian figure exemplified a threefold dedication to faith, reason, and imagination. Lewis, of course, fit the bill. Because of Stan’s dedication to that calling and mission, many thousands of lives have been directly and indirectly impacted for Christ through the work of the Foundation.
When we are introduced to Reepicheep in Prince Caspian, Lewis describes him (and here I’m paraphrasing to account for changes in word usage) as “a joyous and martial mouse.” Reepicheep is both fearless in battle and courteous elsewhere, experiencing joy in either situation. Though he is not without insecurities when it comes to worrying overly about his own sense of honor, Reepicheep is the first to lead a charge, the first to help others, and the first to express joy. He is energetic and quick to action.
As any leader in nonprofit ministry knows (or discovers very quickly), faithfulness in this world takes immense courage. Through all sorts of trials from the world, the flesh, and the Enemy over his 34 years as President, Stan demonstrated that courage. Like Reepicheep, Stan had his own set of flaws and insecurities, but it’s in the midst of these that courage is so often called forth. Stan trusted the Lord and always desired to lead by following the Spirit. More than anything, he was a man of prayer which tempered his natural eagerness to move forward quickly.
Stan was known for his joy. Anyone that met him could tell you about a time when he saw them and greeted them with a twinkle of joy in his eyes and a smile on his face. He was particularly in his element when he’d talk to someone as if the rest of the world around him didn’t exist in time or space, hearing their story, and encouraging them forward on their journey as Christians.
One of the greatest characterizations of Reepicheep is his charity towards Eustace after Eustace becomes a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Mistreated by Eustace earlier in the story, to the point where Reepicheep challenges Eustace to a duel for honor, Reepicheep later shows kindness to Eustace when Eustace is distressed at becoming a dragon:
The pleasure (quite new to him) of being liked and, still more, of liking other people, was what kept Eustace from despair. For it was very dreary being a dragon. He shuddered whenever he caught sight of his own reflection as he flew over a mountain lake. He hated the huge batlike wings, the saw-edge ridge on his back, and the cruel, curved claws. He was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with the others. On the evenings when he was not being used as a hot-water bottle he would slink away from the camp and lie curled up like a snake between the wood and the water. On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon’s head, well to the windward to be out of the way of his smoky breath.
Like Reepicheep, Stan always wanted to help people forward on their path towards Jesus. I don’t know that Stan ever ended a conversation with anyone, even a brief one, without asking if he could pray for them. I’ve also been with Stan or heard him tell stories multiple times of him stopping while driving to help people who were stranded on the side of the road. He walked through life ready to talk to anyone he encountered about God and about the C.S. Lewis Foundation.
One example of this is that he intentionally wore his C.S. Lewis Foundation polo shirt on flights so that people might ask him about it and begin a conversation. Many times I heard later from people who had met him at the airport or on an airplane. We all knew that Stan would have struck up a conversation about C.S. Lewis and Jesus even without that logo on the shirt! But he purposefully wore it anyway.
Because of his spirit of joy and hospitality in talking with others, Stan was regularly late to important business meetings, events we were hosting, or speaking engagements. He even almost missed a few flights. When in the throes of talking with, helping, and praying for people, he’d lose track of and then disregard time. When it was our job to get him to places at a certain time, it drove the Foundation staff crazy with anxiety. But seeing the shining look on Stan’s face as he talked to people mitigated some of that.
I personally learned some important lessons from this: 1) Be present when learning about people’s stories and give them your full attention, 2) Prioritize people over tasks, and 3) If you need to be somewhere on time where it’s your job to run an event or attend an important meeting, travel separately from Stan. 😉
I’ve heard and continue to hear countless stories of Stan sitting at a meal with someone in need or spending time on the phone with them helping them figure out their direction in life and praying over them.
Godspeed, My Brother
I could go on and write so much more about my good friend and mentor, Stan Mattson. I’m sure others will fill in some of the gaps by sharing their own stories about him and his influence on their lives. I’m blessed to have known him and spent so many hours with him these last 17 years. He was a formative influence and even a father figure in my life. While he and I are very different as people, we share some key traits and beliefs that made us kin. I wouldn’t be who I am in Christ now without Stan’s friendship in my life and without the community he gathered forth through the Foundation.
I owe so much to the man that my heart greatly grieves over the coming years before I will see him again in glory.
Bon voyage, my dear friend and brother in Christ. Sail on in those golden waves and experience boundless joy in the heavenly host of companions whom you’ve now joined. You are now part of the Great Feast. You’ve arrived Home, and I can’t wait to rush forward to greet you again when my own time has come.
Further up and further in,
President, C.S. Lewis Foundation
[Please pray for Stan’s wife Jean and his family as they mourn. If you’d like to make a gift in honor of Stan, please visit our donation page here.]