Matt had lived a life young men only dream about. By the time he was 21, Matt had already worked as a cabin boy aboard a schooner that took him from his home in Maryland. Matt and his shipmates made voyages to such faraway and exotic places as China, Japan, Africa, and the extreme northern parts of the Russian Empire. Matt was smart, also, having learned to read and write on his own and with the help of the ship’s captain.
After his stint as a world traveler, Matt returned to his Maryland roots and got a job as a hat salesman at one of the best clothing stores in Washington, D.C., an establishment called B.H. Stinemetz & Sons. Stinemetz provided most of upper-class Washington with hats, including the formal top hats worn by many presidents to inaugurations and the like. In such a high-profile store with that type of exclusive clientele, Matt earned a reputation for being able to meet his customer’s needs in service, style, and taste. His time as a cabin boy taught him how to serve well and meet other’s needs with respect and deference where appropriate.
One repeat and liked customer was a high-ranking U.S. Navy officer, a Commander. Matt made sure this man received his best care. After a time, the two men—one older and more experienced, one younger but with a fairly impressive resume himself—began comparing notes on their various sea-going travels. Normally, the Commander would not have interacted with the young salesman beyond what was needed by the conduct of business, but there was something charismatic about the eager-to-please but respectful former cabin boy. During one of his trips to Stinemetz, the Commander asked the salesman, “Don’t you miss the sea?”
Matt grinned broadly. Indeed he did, he said. The Commander continued. “I have been assigned duty in Central America, Matt. Would you like to come with me as my valet?” The Commander knew that the young salesman had the needed seagoing knowledge, that he would not mind being away from Maryland for extended periods, and that is service and attention to detail would be hard to find in any other valet the Navy might have made available.
“Can I think about it and let you know, sir?” Matt answered, making sure to add his thanks for the opportunity lest the Commander think him ungrateful. “Yes, but don’t think too long,” the Commander added. “I leave soon.”
Well, you know that Matt went. He joined the Commander on that voyage and on many others. In fact, for the next 23 years, Matt became the Commander’s field assistant, navigator, handyman, and right-hand man on every expedition he took over the next several years.
There is one expedition the two men shared that you know about—to the Arctic. You see, the Commander was Robert Peary, and Matt would be the first man to stand at 90 degrees latitude north—the North Pole—because Matt reached the spot a few minutes before Peary did. Matt would go on to receive fame and accolades, including trips to the White House—the place whose former residents bought the hats he sold—and is interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
You probably haven’t read his book detailing his exploits with Peary, but the title might interest you: A Negro Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew Henson.