In Memoriam: Cheryl Ann Mathison

“As I lived my life, I learned what I believe is the most important thing one can learn: Only kindness matters.”  -- Cheryl Ann Mathison 

The Western Washington University community is mourning the sudden loss of long-time and cherished colleague and friend, Cheryl Mathison, who passed away this past Friday, Aug. 26. The University’s sympathies are with Cheryl’s family, friends and colleagues in this difficult time.  

A pillar of the community, Cheryl Ann Mathison began her Western career as a student, where she completed a bachelor’s in Human Services and a master’s in Adult and Higher Education before becoming department manager in the Woodring College of Education. Her dedication to Western embraced more than academics, as she developed a passion for labor rights, representation, and activism, and became a valued leader within the Public School Employees of Washington (PSE) labor union. 

“I am deeply shocked and saddened at the unexpected passing of Cheryl,” said WWU President Sabah Randhawa. “In fact, I had a delightful conversation with her just before she was leaving for vacation two weeks ago, and she was so excited about the trip. Cheryl was kind, generous, and collaborative. Working in her capacity as PSE’s Local Union President, Cheryl was deeply committed to the well-being of our staff and the greater Western community. This is an enormous loss for all of us.” 

Cheryl’s colleague and close friend in the Woodring College of Education, John Korsmo, associate dean for Student Services, chair of Health & Community Services and professor of Human Services, said her passing will be felt by all within Woodring.

“The news of Cheryl’s passing is an emotional blow. She was a devoted advocate for all of us at Western. On a personal level, Cheryl was an amazing colleague and friend who brought an abundance of grace, joy, and laughter into even the most challenging circumstances. Her ability to focus on the positive potential around us all will be sorely missed," Korsmo said. 

“The Public School Employees of Washington has lost someone very special,” said Johnny Kapple, regional union representative for PSE. “Cheryl was a union leader and officer in two unions at WWU. She was passionate about human (and canine) rights and approached every problem with solutions. Cheryl was instrumental in organizing and writing the PSE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement and was a member of several bargaining teams. Cheryl never stopped embracing new ideas and points of view. She was and will remain one of the greatest gifts ever given to PSE of WWU.” 

“Cheryl touched so many lives during her tenure at WWU,” said Joyce Lopes, WWU vice president for Business and Financial Affairs. “She made a difference in the lives of thousands of students, she worked tirelessly to support the PSE members at WWU and across the state, and she always found time to assist her colleagues across the university.  She was so kind to me and my husband when we first moved here last year, and although I only knew her a short time, I do know we will all miss her dearly.” 

Cheryl will leave a lasting legacy on the Western community, and one that is perhaps best shared in her own words. The following is a self-penned epitaph, which Cheryl wrote for herself in 2021. Cheryl’s family has authorized WWU to publish this on her behalf:  


"If you were expecting a typical obituary, this will not be it. Written on March 17, 2021, by the deceased herself (hopefully long before it was needed). 

Cheryl Ann Mathison was born to Matt Thurlow and Ann Mathison on January 25, 1956, which also happened to be her paternal grandmother’s birthday. An only child, we lived in Fresno, California until I was 12. Childhood adventures included time spent at the family cabin at Huntington Lake, fishing, hiking in the woods, and spying on the mysterious Christian Brother’s camp at the bottom of our hill. When not in the mountains, I could be found in our swimming pool. Each year my family traveled north to escape the California heat and would visit family in Bellingham on our way to British Columbia for fishing and camping.   

During the summer between the 5th and 6th grades, my parents purchased property in Whatcom County where they would build a trailer park and start the next chapter in our adventure. Becoming a country kid was difficult for me and took some time to get used to.  After the first day of school, I remember telling my mother that the school had more flies than kids. Thank goodness for Marian Snider, who became my lifelong sister-friend starting that year. In all these years, I have never let her forget that she is four days older than me. 

After high school I followed in my mother’s footsteps and went to beauty college. After a 45-year hairdressing career that included several years of salon work, teaching, and salon ownership, the Covid Pandemic forced me into retirement. I remain grateful to all the friendships made over the shampoo sink, and my long-term working partner, Carol Timms-Akeley. 

Life moves on, and after my parents’ deaths and a divorce, I moved to the south side of Bellingham, which has remained my home ever since. I was blessed to be able to buy a home in a beautiful neighborhood and build on a beauty shop space where I could work while I pursued a college education. 

Heading back to school at 38 was intimidating, but I found that I loved school and continued until I completed a master’s degree in Adult Education. During that time, I became a Big Sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization, then went to work for them as the Director of Community Based Programs. Working with children and families was rewarding but working for “soft” money in a nonprofit was not secure, so I went to work at Western Washington University. Little did I know the state also runs on “soft” money! 

In 2004 I married Jim Henderson. We almost didn’t meet because he lived in Everett and thought Bellingham was too far away. Little did he know that once we met, we would become inseparable.  

Traveling to Ireland in 2012 with sister-friend Soozi Crosby lives in my memory as the best trip I have ever taken. And the Oregon coast, especially Bandon, remains dear in my heart and a place where I would meet my beloved cousin Patrick and his wife Patricia for family vacations. I have been fortunate enough to see many places in my lifetime that have left a lasting impression and fond memories: Hawaii, Switzerland, and the Grand Canyon to name a few. 

As a lifelong reader I started a book club shortly after graduating from college in my 40’s, and it has continued since then. We have stuck together through thick and thin and a pandemic. This remarkable group of sister-friends, Kelli Reilly, Susan Kincaid, Deb Brinson, Kris Slentz, Susan Gribbin, and Soozi Crosby has been a support and source of love and laughter in my life. 

While working at WWU, I became a union activist. As a union board and bargaining team member, I gave back to my community by doing my best to represent the collective voice. I will always be humbled by the honor of serving my community as a union member. 

At this time, I have no idea why I am no longer living in this world, but I hope that I have left it a little better than it was.   

As I lived my life, I learned what I believe is the most important thing one can learn: Only kindness matters. 

As a last act of kindness, I ask that if you wish to remember me, please do it with a donation to the Bellingham Food Bank." 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022 - 11:12am