As “Royals,” all EMU students are entitled to the socioeconomic benefits of higher education, but how many of us are actual royalty?
The word itself comes from the Latin for “nobility” via Old French, and was originally applied to very few persons, although EMU seems more liberal about applying the term these days.
However uncommon royalty might be, though, fairy tales warn us that royals can appear in the most unexpected of places at opportune moments, often disguised in humble garb and the most unassuming demeanor.
Royals though we may all be, even at EMU there is a special kind of double-nobility.
Mathias, West Virginia–A Fairy Tale
Driving north on Route 42, the road forks off in opposite directions at the traffic light in the hamlet of Broadway.
Following Route 259 to the West, a cold and shallow mountain river winds its way down from the hills.
Continuing westward and then turning North again, the road crosses the state line into Hardy County, W. Va.
Beyond the trailers and past the rickety old barns of rural Hardy County – in between the frozen-looking and rather sparse herds of cattle – lie glimpses of a mountain-folk civilization in the distance.
This is Mathias, W. Va., situated in a valley between Lost River State Park and George Washington National Forest. In Mathias proper, there are two Churches of the Brethren – which used to be a single Church of the Brethren, until it split itself into two like an amoeba – and there is a school, a daycare and a clinic.
Right next to those work-horses of public well-being is a natural gas pumping station with a big faded sign posted on the fence reading, “In case of emergency, call 1-800-…” recalling a pipeline explosion that destroyed buildings and injured several in 2004.
Mathias seems to have been largely passed over by the economic booms of the last century or so – missed by the forces that turned sleepy Harrisonburg into a suburban enclave. It could even be described as pretty, in a stark and quirky kind of way.
There is the self-proclaimed “Cut & Tan” – a home business distinguished only by its signage; there is another building with several faded signs proclaiming “Yard Sale” – but the yard itself is hardly distinguishable from its neighbors.
One trailer – the home of the game warden, apparently – displays a handmade sign in the front yard: “Ask God, He Knows.”
But what is a person supposed to ask God, exactly? The signs in Mathias may notify, but are not quite at the modern level of advertising. This reflects the kind of personality that dominates public life in the area; in a place like Mathias, people talk slow and thoroughly, and they surely have many questions for the big game warden in the sky.
John Mathias and his Royal Ancestry
On the other side of the highway from the bulk of the town stands a proud old homestead, alone in a field.
Behind the homestead is a community center, which serves pot pie on Saturday afternoons after 3 p.m..
Another hand-made sign claims that this rustic two-story is in fact the John Mathias Homestead.
At certain times of the year, the place operates as a museum, that is, one weekend a month during the tourist season, when the descendants of John Mathias can give tours and talk genealogy.
History is uncertain as to the ancestral origins of John Mathias and his town.
The oldest records trace an immigrant named Johanne Mathias, a refugee from Alsace-Lorraine in modern day France.
According to the National Registry for Historic Places Inventory, as with so many before and after, John (Johanne) Mathias emigrated to the emerging United States from Alsace-Lorraine to escape persecution.
Along with two brothers he first took up residence around Philadelphia, but he soon followed an established trend of migration to the interior… It was in 1791 that he acquired property around present-day Mathias, and his family apparently moved into their well-constructed log house around 1797.
According to the family historians of John Mathias and his wife Barbara Dispanet, the tradition reaches back further, to royal roots in the land of the Magyars – Hungary – and to a benevolent monarch, King Matthias Corvinus, or Matthias the Just.
Matthias Corvinus became King of Hungary at the tender age of 14 in the year 1458.
Eventually his purview came to include parts of central Europe including Croatia and Bohemia.
He is credited with establishing a mini-renaissance among his people, and was seen as a fair and prudent ruler.
He had strong features and long hair, and ruled for nearly half a century. There are several folklore literary traditions in which he figures prominently.
Matthias Corvinus’ descendants became part of the class of European nobility after his death, until several hundred years later when several of them fled Europe altogether, settling eventually, as we have seen, not far from EMU.
Shannon Dove, a Royal Among Royals
In the bottom floor of the University Commons, Shannon Dove furiously saws and drills and paints and hammers.
Long graying waves of hair and strong European features distinguish him as a fair likeness of Matthias Corvinus.
As a member of the Visual and Communication Arts department at EMU, Dove plays a role in the design and construction of EMU’s acclaimed theater sets.
He also plays in a popular local Celtic music ensemble, Shen Fine, along with Brent Holl and Cheryl Tobler.
Despite his creative talents, Dove maintains a humble demeanor, occasionally betrayed by rolls of laughter loud enough to disrupt a meeting.
As a lifelong thespian, Dove knows how to carry himself with a touch of class, even though his intense gaze, unshorn locks and unshaved beard can sometimes seem unsettling.
But there is more to Dove than meets the eye. Like the fairytale nobleman recast in the form of something common, Dove is actually hidden royalty.He is, it turns out, a descendant of both Johanne Mathias and King Matthias the Just – a noble heritage that suits him well in more democratic settings like the EMU theater department. In the words of theater professor Heidi Winters-Vogel, “Having Shannon as a member of the theater is an honor on so many levels.”
Dove himself seemed mostly unaware of the importance of his royal status until one particular event awakened him to it.
“Several years ago I was driving a Hungarian diplomat from Washington D.C. to James Madison University for a function,” he explains.
“We got stuck in a traffic jam and I mentioned my Hungarian heritage in passing, being related to Matthias Corvinus.”
The diplomat got really excited at the name of Matthias Corvinus, who is still celebrated in Hungarian culture. “He starts babbling at me in Hungarian,” relates Dove, “and I am like, whoa, I don’t actually speak the language of Matthias Corvinus, I’m only related to him.”
Well, the diplomat responded in English, you’re related to the King and so you are royalty. Therefore you must learn the language. Dove laughs loudly to punctuate his story: “Go figure.”
The Meaning of Royalty
To our modern sensibilities, celebrity and sex appeal are much more important than royal heritage.
Driving through a little town like Mathias, W. Va., is nothing if not an exercise in the mundane.
But the folk tales passed down to us inform new meanings into words like “Royal” – encoding something that those who came before us thought important enough to leave to posterity.
The first lesson of Mathias, WV is this: don’t take things at face value. Even little hollows in Appalachia are home to hidden gems.
The more important lesson of Dove is this: royalty is as royalty does.
Perhaps it is in the little towns full of faded signs and mountain folk that the idea of Royalty waits patiently for its time to bless us with the gifts of music, theater and culture, reborn in Royals like Dove.
-Evan Knappenberger, Staff Writer
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