Remembering an archer nonpareil
Matt Becker - For The Daily Iowan
Dan Mattes died on Jan. 26, but his basement workshop suggests he was coming home at any time.
The remnants of his active lifestyle lie undisturbed. Twelve immaculately clean oars hang from the ceiling, and 11 archer's bows rest on pairs of hooks. Hundreds of arrows cover the wall, and his bow press fills the center of the room.
Standing in his sanctuary on July 6, his widow, Christine Mattes, and two close friends, Lois and Bill Burkett, couldn't help but cry. It was too soon. How can someone remember what they miss most about the person they love when they still can't believe he's dead?
They shouldn't be crying, though. Dan Mattes wouldn't have liked that, Christine Mattes said. What he did like, however, was archery. In fact, he loved it.
"Dan could take a Volkswagen of a bow and turn it into a Cadillac," said Bill Burkett, who knew Dan Mattes for more than 40 years.
On Sunday morning at the MacBride Nature Recreation Area, the Johnson County Archers held its first Memorial Dan Mattes Traditional Shoot to celebrate his contributions to the sport. By 10 a.m., the license plates of the parking lot's 20 cars (mostly pickups, with a few minivans for good measure) read "Black Hawk," "Cedar," "Washington," and "Fayette," among others. Dan Mattes had friends in every archery community in the state, Bill Burkett said.
The shoot was made up of 20 3-D faux animal targets, ranging from 10 to 28 yards away. A circle on the animal represented its "vitals," with a center shot earning 10 points, and the surrounding circle yielding eight. Hitting the animal anywhere else earned five points. The point system wasn't important, though - no trophies were handed out. Personal satisfaction was the only reward.
The weapon of choice was a long bow, as opposed to a compound bow. The pressure in long bows increases as the string is pulled back, while compound bows decrease in pressure as they are pulled back because the latter features a pulley at each end. Plus, long bows don't have scopes.
"Long bows are all instinct," Lois Burkett said.
Dan Mattes worked on long bows all the time. Compounds, too. He lived and breathed archery, his wife said. His first foray into archery assistance began shortly after the Whitetail Bowmen of Iowa City was created in the mid-1960s. He used to make his own arrows and his own string, Bill Burkett said. He even worked on bows for outdoor goods retailer Fin & Feather. He seemed to know everything about archery.
"If someone had a question, eventually that question would get around to Dan," Bill Burkett said. "And he could always answer it."
He was more than just knowledgeable. He gave advice freely, and he sold archery materials for face value, not charging for labor, Bill Burkett said.
In 1998, Dan Mattes was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he never complained, Christine Mattes said. Cancer be damned, he never stopped doing what he loved. Even with his health failing, he worked as hard as his body would allow, sweating as he carried 3-D targets throughout the archery course. After the Whitetail Bowmen became defunct 15 years ago, the Johnson County Archers was created nearly six years ago by Frank Dolezal, a retired Iowa City firefighter who had known Dan Mattes since the early 1970s.
With a necklace of bear bones, a camouflage hat, and a variety of tools fastened to his belt, Dolezal looked every bit the hunter that he is. He knew Dan Mattes at the end, when his prostate cancer spread into his bones, when he moved back to Iowa City for his final four months to be with his friends.
"As far as I'm concerned, he was kind of the hub of the archery range up here," Dolezal said.
When Dan Mattes died, there was no funeral. He left behind two sons from a previous marriage, five grandchildren, hundreds of friends, and Christine Mattes.
At 52, she has silver streaks of gray around her ears, but the rest of her hair is dark brown. On Sunday, her thick, brown boots, and sleek frame suggested she was more an athlete than a widow.
Christine Mattes is tough, but after 18 years of marriage, Dan Mattes is more than just a memory. Around her neck dangled a heart-shaped locket, filled with his ashes. Just as after his death, there was no ceremony for him at the shoot.
"You can't shoot when you're crying," Christine Mattes said.