Lawrence and Marilyn Matteson

Leveraging success to help children fight cancer

By Mayo Clinic Staff

With a gift to the Mayo Clinic Proton Beam Therapy Program, Lawrence and Marilyn Matteson hope to help children defeat cancer.

Not many men know how to skin a skunk and sell the hide, overhaul a tractor, cut commercial timber, milk a cow, dredge a lake, build a winch, and remember to call their wives every single day.

But Lawrence Matteson does.

He remembers walking trap lines along the Skunk River as a kid. Every morning he and his brother followed its winding banks, shooting and collecting game on the way. At the end of the line was their one-room schoolhouse, and each morning the boys' teacher gathered their guns and game to hold in the woodshed until the day's lessons were over.

Back then, Lawrence couldn't fathom his life's journey and how the skills he learned working the family farm played into his future. He was more focused on selling the hide that he skinned and the nightly dinner his mother made from her sons' hunting excursions.

"We ate a lot of blackbird pie," Lawrence reflects, his past glimmering in his now 83-year-old eyes. "My mother could cook just about anything we brought home. Squirrel. Rabbit. She was a remarkable woman."

Growing up in southern Iowa along a Mississippi tributary, exploring the countryside for hours on end, Lawrence and his brother, Gene, experienced freedom that few kids understand today.

"We entertained ourselves," Lawrence says, recalling that his mother always knew that her sons were by the tracks when she heard the blast from a train whistle blowing in the distance.

Hard work pays off

And although Lawrence fondly recalls blue summer skies and roaming the land, he also remembers hard work and fickle machinery. In high school, the brothers took over the farm chores when their father went to work for the railroad, and it was up to them to keep the equipment running smoothly. "We overhauled the tractors — removing pistons and rods — and completely rebuilt them from the ground up," Lawrence remembers.

Later, when the brothers took over the family farm, they built their own logging equipment and started a timber company in the offseason. Looking for a way to leave the farming business and capitalize on his mechanical abilities, Lawrence started working on heavy machinery at a local fertilizer plant. When the company suggested he buy a dredge and dig up the harbor, Lawrence did what he'd been doing all along, put new life into an old machine and went to work. Before long, he bought another dredge and expanded his business.

"It just grew," Lawrence says. And grew. L.W. Matteson Inc. became one of the largest freshwater dredging and marine construction companies in the United States. About 40 years after buying his first dredge, Lawrence, along with his son Larry, sold the company for $45 million.

Innovate and work the trenches

Looking back, Lawrence attributes much of his success to a combination of the skills and work ethic he gained on the farm and taking chances on high-risk jobs that many contractors avoided — like removing millions of cubic yards of sand and silt by pushing it through huge portable pipes more than a mile long.

"My biggest asset in dredging was that I didn't know a thing about it," Lawrence says. "So I didn't have the limitations that others put on themselves when they think something can't be done."

"Fortunately," he adds grinning, "it worked out."

Often Lawrence worked on equipment shoulder to shoulder with the mechanics. "I had a lot of good people working with me," he says. "It helps a lot in business if the guys know I can do everything with the equipment that they can."

An innovator at heart, Lawrence often designed and built machinery to tackle monumental jobs and problems as they arose. He and his crew worked 12-hour days up and down the Mississippi. The long hours didn't leave a lot of time for family, though when counting his blessings, Lawrence always includes his wife of more than 30 years, Marilyn, their three children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

And always call your wife

Even though Lawrence sold his company, he remains involved as a consultant. Just like he's done for his entire career, Lawrence leaves for work every Monday morning and comes home Friday afternoon. "That's what keeps us married," Marilyn teases. Although distance may make the heart grow fonder, a loving call from the husband every night doesn't hurt.

In 2009 Lawrence's work schedule came to a halt when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Longtime Mayo patients, the couple spent nine weeks in Rochester, Minn., while Lawrence received treatment at Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

Smiling, he says, "It's the most time we have spent together." Placing her hand on his, Marilyn winks and says, "It even worked out, too." She adds, "One of the things that impressed me the most at Mayo was that Larry would have a test and results by the end of the day. We never had to wait for a specialist or an answer."

Taking aim at cancer

The Mattesons' experience at Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and Lawrence's innate understanding of powerful machinery and complex construction attracted the couple to Mayo Clinic's Proton Beam Therapy Program — which will house two particle accelerators on two campuses. The Rochester project alone uses enough structural steel to equal the weight of nearly 10 Statue of Liberty sculptures.

The Matteson's gift to the program — launching in 2015 in Rochester and 2016 in Arizona — helps deliver the most precise form of radiation therapy. Unlike conventional radiation, proton beam spares healthy tissue from harm while safely treating cancer next to critical organs. It's especially beneficial to children, whose bones and tissues are still growing.

"This technology will greatly benefit children who are fighting terrible cancers," Marilyn says. "They won't have the residual effects that could affect them for the rest of their lives as they might with conventional radiation. That's something we want to support."

Thanks to generosity and donors like the Mattesons, benefactors are providing hope and healing. Learn more about the Mayo Clinic Proton Beam Therapy Program.