November 24, 1975 12:00 PM

As a student at Clarke County High School in Alabama, David Mathews never mastered the clarinet. “That,” says Mathews’ slim, blond wife, Mary, looking back on his life, “is about the only thing he didn’t do well.”

She may be right. Mathews, the youngest member of President Ford’s Cabinet, runs the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which has 129,000 employees and spends one-third of the federal budget. At 33, he became president of the University of Alabama. Now 39 he is so businesslike that not even bureaucratic Washington has spoiled his reputation for a clean desk at day’s end.

And yet even the impressive Forrest David Mathews has a bit of an identity problem. After he got the HEW nomination five months ago, one Washington newspaper asked a wire service for a photograph of the university president. What arrived was a picture of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who is Alabama’s football coach (“a legend in his own time,” says Mathews cheerfully of Bryant).

Mathews’ near-obscurity doesn’t faze him. It has probably helped him come so far so fast without becoming locked into ideological positions: with professorial rambling, he manages to talk around most tough issues. Ask him about busing and he says: “The issue has become so controversial that we have lost sight of the real issue—inferior schools.” He believes there should be an end to segregation, but adds that the problem has “no magical cure.” He talks of the nation’s “dependence on the health system,” but then adds that people should learn “how to take care of themselves. We should reeducate people to use the libraries and the family reference shelf.”

Mathews’ roots lie deep in the individualism of the South. His greatgrandfather was, he says, “a dirt farmer and a populist in the state legislature.” His father was a teacher and county school superintendent. Young Mathews, a Phi Beta Kappa and historian by trade, studied Greek so assiduously at the university that it ran out of courses. When he was the school’s president, Mathews insisted on teaching American history to keep in touch with the students. Friends as well as critics describe him as a hustler. “He is great at working with people,” observes one admirer. His admirers hope he will run for governor or senator in Alabama.

He is also sharp at anticipating what people want. Last February, as a member of the Bicentennial Council, he brought the President a football autographed by the Alabama team. Ford, the old Michigan Wolverine, took the handoff and presumably marked Mathews for his varsity.

“My life at the university was better than lovely,” reminisces Mathews. “Mary wasn’t jumping up and down crazy about coming to Washington.” She complains about his accessibility. “Back home if we wanted David, we just had to run through the shrubs.”

Mathews and Mary, 36, who grew up together in Grove Hill, Ala. (pop. 1,825), and their daughters, Lee Ann, 14, and Lucy, 10, live in a large house in McLean, Va. “The girls go to public schools,” says Mathews, who spends his spare moments reading or puttering in his garden.

If their life-style has changed from Tuscaloosa, the tempo has not. “A university president has to go to a lot of ceremonial functions,” says Mathews. “Now we just go to fewer pep rallies and more embassy teas.”

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