Pepsi Cola of Atmore owner leaves behind legacy
By By Adam Prestridge
Pepsi delivery trucks continued to make their routine rounds Friday despite the shocking news that owner Hooper W. Matthews Jr. had passed away.
Business continued like any other day and that's how friends and employees said Matthews would have wanted it.
"For the rest of the day it's business as usual," Pepsi vice president of sales Webb Nall said Friday afternoon. "He would want business to go on as usual."
Matthews, owner of Pepsi Cola Company of Atmore since 1967, passed away in his sleep Friday morning from what is believed to be natural causes. He was 78 years old.
Late Friday afternoon, the news of Matthews' death was still surreal to those who admired him as not only a businessman, but as a friend and confidant.
"I've worked for Hoop for 39 years and two months," Nall said. "He was like a father to me. The Matthews family has been good to me. The whole family is like my family."
Matthews arrived in Atmore by train in 1948 and, according to close friends he has had Atmore in his best interests since stepping foot on the tracks that make Atmore home to so many. Just last year, he was the recipient of the Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce's Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of all that he had done for this small town.
"He really had a great love for Atmore and all of his life contributed to making Atmore a better place," Atmore's Jimmy Crook said. "A couple of things he believed in were working hard and having fun doing the work. He enjoyed seeing people have fun and was a gracious host to many."
Crook, who nominated Matthews for the honor, has been a close friend with the well-known businessman since he was 10 years old. Just as he stated prior to presenting the award, he continues to believe Matthews' greatest contribution to Atmore was his work with its youth.
"He influenced a lot of young people and one of the lessons I felt he taught them is that it takes hard work to accomplish something that is worth achieving," Crook said. "He sincerely wanted to help others and their causes, and wanted to do it quietly with little or no recognition."
Crook also said Matthews was a straight shooter.
"One of the things I liked most about Hooper was that he was a man of his word," he said. "You learned to listen to what he said because he meant it."
Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said having a businessman in town like Matthews was an asset to the community as a whole and that his shoes will be hard to fill.
"Hooper had this city's welfare and interest at heart for years," Shell said. "There are just so many things that he accomplished over his lifetime while he was a member of this community. He helped with the ballparks by contributing scoreboards and other equipment and services. He did this very quietly without trying to get a lot of recognition. That was just the sort of person he was. He was well organized in all of his affairs; he knew what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it. He accomplished these things very quietly. He will be sadly missed by all of his friends and family."
Shell said the news of "Big Hoop's" death was shocking.
"You always are shocked during a time like this," he said. "Someone that has been as active in community affairs as he was, it's hard to realize that they won't be around."
When Matthews moved to Atmore in 1948 from Nashville, Tenn. he was unsure if he wanted to live in Atmore or Mobile, he said in a previous interview. A half a century later, he stated that he was sure he made the right choice.
"I wouldn't trade Atmore for anywhere," Matthews said following the 2005 Chamber banquet. "I'm just glad I can be a part of this community."
Matthews said during the interview that the train let him off where the "little station is now." He said that all he had was a little suitcase that was only half full of clothes. He stayed in a hotel that used to be downtown before moving to the Lowery House located where The Atmore Advance is now. From there, he moved into the Rankin house, which is currently the parking lot of the Methodist Church and later moved into the H.T. James house.
"We were very saddened to hear of Hooper's death, he has always been so generous to our community," Atmore Chamber of Commerce executive director Emilie Mims said.
Matthews later bought the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company building and began bottling colas. Back then, Pepsi of Atmore bottled its own drinks, but gave that up and started buying from Buffalo Rock and other plants.
Nall reflected back on the time when he started work for Matthews. He said it was in August of 1967, just two months following Matthews' purchase of the facility from the Pipkin family.
"It's been a sad day, we've lost a family member," Nall said. "Hooper was very caring and he wanted you to do good. He expected you to excel in your work and gave you every opportunity. He gave you what you needed to be successful."
Nall went on to add that the future of Pepsi Cola of Atmore would continue to shine.
"He's going to be missed, there's no doubt about it, but business has got to go on," he said. "He has three children who are very capable of running the business."
Shell agreed and believes Matthews' strong family values would prevail.
"Pepsi has a strong family core group, and the business will continue to be a very viable business in town," he said. "He made sure he kept his business affairs in order and that everything was in place for all of it to continue. You always miss somebody that has been such a big contributor as he has been. He will be missed, but I'm sure his family will continue to support the activities and things that he felt was necessary and that he had a viable interest in."
Crook said Matthews was a registered forester, has been involved in the timber business all of his life and had a large land holding.
"He was kind of a legend as far as that industry," he said.
Shell added that his efforts in conservation also made him well known in the forestry business.
According to Crook, Matthews served as president of A.C. Moore Elementary School's PTA and on the Board of Directors for Escambia Academy. He also endorsed and supported the Read America program and the Huxford Elementary School Reading Initiative Program and was a strong contributor and supporter of Scouting programs, the YMCA and drug and alcohol education in the county schools.
Crook went on to say that Matthews was a member and past president of the Chamber of Commerce Board and helped recruit Masland Carpets to the area. He raised funds for schools in the Atmore area, the American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association, Williams Station Day, Mayfest, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians before they received federal funding and the City of Atmore Police Department.
Matthews will be laid to rest at Oak Hill Cemetery on Monday following a 2 p.m. funeral service at Atmore First Assembly of God. Visitation will be held tonight beginning at 6 p.m. at Atmore Memorial Chapel Funeral Home.
As with his family, the Atmore community is saddened with the loss of Matthews, an icon to many. But his legacy is sure to live on through his family, co-workers and business.
"I am heart broken and shocked," Crook said. "I'm proud that he was a part of my life."