Class of 2015 Difference Makers

Difference Makers 2015: Judy Matt, President of the Spirit of Springfield

City’s Biggest Cheerleader Has Generated Light During Some Dark Times

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

Photo by Denise Smith Photography

It was with a strong dose of pride in her voice that Judy Matt explained that she keeps everything, and never tosses anything.

To prove it, she had a staff member at the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) retrieve an old briefcase from storage in the agency’s office at 1350 Main St.

In it was an eclectic array of items from her years at the helm of something called the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, or MOCA, in the mid-’80s, and also from her prior work for the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). They included several program booklets from inaugural ceremonies involving a few mayors, but especially Richard Neal, who served from 1984 to 1989 and recruited Matt to lead MOCA; some marketing materials she created while at the GSCVB that featured the phrase ‘Metro Springfield,’ which she concocted; and a program book from the grand opening of the ‘old’ Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

And then, there was a promotional piece called “The Great Trees of Our City,” a pamphlet that highlighted a number of Springfield’s more noted examples of arboreal splendor, from a river birch on the grounds of MassMutual’s headquarters to the famous black walnut on State Street that now stands guard in front of the new federal courthouse.

“Richie Neal liked to build pride in the city — he did a lot of things like that,” Matt said of “The Great Trees.” “He was always looking for ways to showcase the city and make everyone proud.”

Suffice it to say that Matt’s efforts to promote Springfield, engender pride, and create positive vibes in a city that has sorely needed them, have come a long way from that brochure.

A very long way.

Indeed, over the past 30 years or so, first with MOCA and especially with the nonprofit Spirit of Springfield, formed after MOCA’s demise, Matt has spearheaded everything from the Big Balloon Parade down Main Street to what was, for some time, called the ‘World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast’; from First Night festivities to fireworks on the Fourth of July long after the city lacked the ability to pay for them.

And then, there’s the holiday lighting display Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year. The largest endeavor of its kind in the country, it has put Springfield on the map and found itself within a few lines of the majestic fountains of the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas on many national lists of must-see attractions.

Meanwhile, there have been other special occasions and events for which the city has turned to Matt to play the lead role in both making them happen and making them special. That list includes everything from city birthday celebrations to Larry Bird’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, to the massive — and carefully orchestrated — funeral arrangements for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose in 2012.

Bright Nights

Bright Nights, which recently celebrated its 20th year, is now a permanent fixture on many national lists of must-see attractions.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

But when you talk with those who have worked with Matt on these initiatives and others over the years, they inevitably talk as much about how she carries out her work as they do the volume of work. They use words like ‘energy,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘determination,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘passion’ (that’s the one you hear most often) to describe her approach to meeting her job description. They also speak to a unique talent for marshaling the forces needed to make all these events happen — from corporate sponsors for Bright Nights to the volunteers holding the ropes on the Cat in the Hat balloon — and an ability to somehow bring needed light during some of the city’s darkest times.

“Judy has been a true champion of Springfield, a real believer, especially during the tough times, when a lot of people were saying, ‘if you’re the last one to leave, turn out the lights,’” said Bill Pepin, president of WWLP Channel 22 and the first president of the Spirit of Springfield board. “She never gave up on Springfield, and has always been of the opinion that, when times are tough, that’s when you need the Spirit of Springfield most. And we’ve had a lot of tough times.”

Jane Albert, current chair, agreed, and noted that putting on a fireworks display or staging a parade may not be saving lives, combatting poverty, or eradicating homelessness, but Matt is improving quality of life, which certainly qualifies her as a Difference Maker.

“Judy makes a difference in the lives of so many people,” Albert told BusinesWest. “She’s passionate about what she does, and she cares deeply about the community. Most cities don’t have a Judy Matt, and Springfield’s very fortunate that it has her.”

Let There Be Light

During a lengthy interview with BusinessWest in the late summer of 1998, Matt told this writer that her job, “pure and simple, is to make the boss look good.”

She summoned those words while talking about a lifelong desire to toil in the background (although that’s impossible to do as director of the SOS) and direct praise to those for whom she worked for a particular event or initiative. And over the years, the word ‘boss’ came to mean many things. Early on, in the days of MOCA, and to a large extent today as well, it means the city’s mayor — even though the Spirit of Springfield is not a city department, a common misperception.

But it also means the members of her board, the corporations and individuals who have donated millions of dollars over the years to make events happen, and even the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities.

And this desire to please so many bosses is what drives Matt to not only produce events, but do them in a big (and, yes, expensive) manner where cutting corners is simply not an option, even if some of those bosses might have suggested (quietly and even loudly) that she might want to consider doing so.

And there’s no better example of all this than Bright Nights.

That story begins in the spring of 1995, when Pat Sullivan, director of Springfield’s Parks and Recreation Department, came into possession of a brochure from the Carpenter Decorating Co., a North Carolina-based business that designed and manufactured holiday lighting displays.

Intrigued by what he saw, Sullivan envisioned Forest Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the country at 735 acres, as a site for such a display. He brought the concept to Matt, who soon took Sullivan’s vision to a much higher level.

Indeed, while early discussions focused on using only the park’s baseball fields for off-the-shelf lighting displays such as Santa Claus throwing snowballs, Matt envisioned using the entire park and creating displays that paid tribute to the city’s history and noted residents such as Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Everett Barney, who donated land for Forest Park and invented the first clamp-on ice skate.

Working with John Catenaci, design director for Carpenter Decorating, Matt and Sullivan started advancing a plan for a two-and-a-half-mile-long series of displays that would thread its way through the park. Making this vision reality required clearing a host of hurdles, from logistical matters including wiring the park and digging trenches for that wiring, to the matter of convincing a very skeptical board of directors to go along with the idea, to finding corporate sponsors for the ambitious lighting displays.

The Big Balloon Parade

The Big Balloon Parade has become a Springfield tradition, one of many launched, or continued, by the Spirit of Springfield and its president, Judy Matt.
Photo Courtesy Spirit of Springfield

“When we look back, we often laugh and say, ‘how did we ever get all of that done?’ But if you believe in something, you can accomplish it, and Judy believed in it,” said Sullivan, adding that, by Thanksgiving, a host of displays, from Seuss Land to North Pole Village to Toy Land, were ready for prime time. And Matt had added ‘Wonder Woman’ — a phrase summoned by a city official upon his first look at the completed Bright Nights — to a host of unofficial titles bestowed upon her over the years, including ‘Springfield’s biggest cheerleader,’ ‘Mrs. Springfield,’ and the ‘First Lady of Springfield.’

How she would come to eventually earn such names is an intriguing story. It begins when Matt, living then in Connecticut, followed her husband, somewhat reluctantly, to Western Mass. in 1970 as he took a job here.

As for her own employment situation … well, she actually put an ad in the local paper stating a desire to find a suitable opportunity, as well as her credentials. The former Chicopee Bank and Trust responded and eventually offered her a job heading up its first MasterCard program.

She moved from there to a job leasing space in the recently opened Baystate West (now Tower Square) and was soon promoted to the position of marketing director. Soon after Neal was elected mayor in November 1983, he asked Matt to coordinate his inauguration ceremonies. She remembers being taken aback by that request — “I didn’t really know him that well, and I said, ‘Richie, I don’t know anything about inaugurals’” — but took on the assignment. She impressed him enough that, when Rick Norcross left his position as head of MOCA, Neal recruited her to take the helm. Over the next several years, she handled everything from the city’s 350th birthday festivities in 1986 to the “Great Trees” brochure.

When funding for MOCA was attached to a proposition 2½ override bid that would fail, the office’s doors closed. It wasn’t long, however, before people like Pepin, Mercy Hospital President Sr. Mary Caritas, and Republican Editor Arnie Friedman, among others, concluded that its work must continue, and that the logical choice for an individual to lead such an organization was Matt, who eventually accepted the job.

But to say that the entity that would come to be known as the Spirit of Springfield had humble beginnings would be a huge understatement.

“Attorney Mike Wallace, who was one of the board members, gave me some space in his office at 95 State St.,” Matt recalled. “We had a desk and a phone, and I would spend almost a year just trying to re-establish us.”

In December of 1989, the agency became a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization and received its first major gift, $20,000, from Tom Burke, president of Burke Beverage, to stage its first event, the Taste of Springfield.

“In was hard to raise money and for people to gain confidence in us in the early years,” Matt noted, adding that the agency managed to gain a firm foothold thanks to early corporate supporters such as Burke, Friendly Ice Cream, Milton Bradley (now Hasbro), and “some of the local banks that aren’t around anymore.”

The rest, as they say, is history in the making.

Some Bright Ideas

While, to many casual observers, the Spirit of Springfield’s work goes on easily and seemingly effortlessly, the reality is much different.

Indeed, funding the various events and initiatives is an ongoing battle, said Matt, adding that even Bright Nights, which many perceive to be a huge money maker, struggles in its mission to both pay for itself and fund other events such as the balloon parade. And a rough winter — like the one experienced in 2013-14, when five nights were lost due to snowstorms — can wreak havoc with the agency’s budget.

“Doing all that she does hasn’t been easy — it hasn’t been easy at all,” said Pepin. “Once in while I’ll run across someone who will say ‘Bright Nights … they’re making a lot of money off that.’ The reality is that they’re not — they’re surviving.

“It’s not like they’re rolling in dough — they’re not holding their board meetings in Tahiti,” he went on. “Funding all these events is a constant struggle.”

And fighting the budget battle is only one challenge that Matt must confront. There is the lingering perception that the agency, its many initiatives, and Matt’s salary are funded by the city, a factual error that can make it difficult to secure funding or support in the court of public opinion.

Meanwhile, Matt has often had to battle red tape and both bureaucratic and fiscal obstacles put in front of her by the communities she’s serving.

“She was doing things for the city when everyone else had essentially given up — she was trying to make things positive for the city,” said Pepin.

“And the city itself hasn’t really gone out of its way to make things easy for her or for organization,” he added. “Here’s an organization that’s trying to do positive things for the residents of Springfield and the surrounding areas, and over the years, they’ve thrown obstacles in her way. Instead of rolling out the red carpet and saying, ‘how can we help you?’ they’ve created issues and obstacles.”

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose

The funeral for slain Springfield police officer Kevin Ambrose was one of many special events that Judy Matt has helped coordinate for Springfield leaders.

In the course of navigating all that, Matt has been driven, said those we spoke with, to create special and lasting memories for area residents, and make things brighter during dark and difficult times. And there have ben many such periods, ranging from city fiscal crises to the events of 9/11 to the tornado that roared through the region on June 1, 2001.

And, again, Bright Nights is a good example.

“Springfield was in a dark and low point at that time,” said Sullivan in reference to the mid-’90s, when the project was conceived and taken from the drawing board to reality. “There was a recession and things happening that you don’t want to happen.

“There wasn’t a good feeling in the city overall — the economy was distressed,” he went on. “And Bright Nights was a catalyst … it helped project that feeling you needed in the city, that Springfield was a place to come and visit, and we should be proud to live in the city. That’s what it meant to me.”

Albert remembers the days after the tornado struck, when there were discussions about whether the city should go forth with the fireworks at a time when so many had seen their lives uprooted. And she remembers Matt not only insisting they that go on, but that they be made special.

“She was so committed to making it incredible for the residents because it was such a low time for the city,” said Albert. “There have been many times when the city was challenged, but the tornado was a very difficult time for the community, and she just said, ‘we have to do this … we have to make this happen for the city, and we have to do a great job.’ And she did.”

Matt’s ability to get things done has prompted several mayors and other administrators to call on her to help with events that are not directly under the purview of the Spirit of Springfield, but nonetheless reflect on the city in many ways.

Albert cited the funeral arrangements for Ambrose as just one example of how Matt can move quickly and decisively and maximize the many strong relationships she’s built over the decades to the betterment of the city.

“There were 1,000 to 1,200 police officers in Court Square for that event,” Albert recalled of the Ambrose proceedings. “She had just a few days to pull that together; she just picked up the phone, called the presidents of large companies in this area, and said, ‘we need some funding to do this,’ ‘this is what we need to do,’ and ‘will you help?’

“I’m not sure if the city went to Judy or if this was Judy’s idea, because she’s always had that sensitivity,” she went on, “and has always wanted to help the city put its best foot forward.”

The Spirit Moved Her

For that interview with BusinessWest back in 1998, Matt summed up her office and her work this way:

“A city isn’t just buildings and streets and bridges. Those things don’t make a city, people do, and part of what makes a community livable is celebrations — they’re a part of us.”

Anyone who has driven through Bright Nights, taken in the fireworks on the Fourth of July, or watched the giant balloons make their way down Main Street would agree.

And for making all these happenings happen and putting smiles of the faces of millions of people, Matt is truly the First Lady of Springfield — and certainly a Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]