Months before “Apart Together” became a sentiment and hashtag for coping with the COVID pandemic, Marti and Tom Mattia were practicing the concept in a new educational adventure. And it has revitalized their decades-long marriage.
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Last fall, Tom and Marti began studying at the University of Texas as part of the TOWER Fellows Program. This innovative initiative gives adults who have already had a career or years in one pursuit carte blanche at one of the top public universities in the country. TOWER Fellows spend a year on the Austin campus exploring new passions, preparing for their next act, or simply indulging their love of learning.
Tom and Marti are the first couple to undertake the program together, even though that wasn’t the plan initially. Tom, a retired public affairs and communications executive with corporations such as Coca Cola and Ford, found out about TOWER Fellows when he was looking for a meaningful way to give back. “After getting out of the corporate world, I wanted to do something focused on helping society,” he says. “I was nearing 70 and wanted to be productive for a couple of more decades. I worked long and hard, but society is responsible for my success.” Tom points out that through his father’s union job he was the first in his family to go to college. “I want to pay back what I owe society.”
The Road to Austin
Having served as the chief communications officer at Yale University, Tom had Ivy League happenings on his radar. He learned about an encore program at Harvard University. He soon discovered that the University of Texas offered a similar opportunity, and when he compared the two, he realized the Texas option was more suited to his goals. “At Harvard, you come up with a project you want to accomplish with a team,” he says. “Texas is more individually focused. That made sense to me.”
It helped that the Mattias had a home in Austin and one of their three daughters (plus a new grandchild) lived there. Marti is from Texas and had attended UT as an undergraduate, getting her degree in journalism. She has spent her career in communications—as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in corporate public relations—took time off to raise her daughters, started a foundation, and published a book in 2004, Conversations with George Bush, an oral history project. After the children were grown, she turned her efforts to writing fiction. In 2015, she had earned her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Pacific University, where she continues to serve on a board to increase diversity.
Thoroughly engrossed in writing her novel, Marti was thrilled that her husband had found the TOWER Fellows program and thought that her only involvement would be as a spouse (fellows have many opportunities to include their spouses in activities and lectures). “I had no intention of doing the full program. I’d already been back to school,” she says. But once she learned all that would be available to her—“What writer wouldn’t benefit from a smorgasbord of classes ranging from music to mindfulness, studying with a bunch of people who could easily be characters in fiction?”—she wanted to have her own experience.
Separate but Together
Before they stepped on campus, Tom and Marti established some ground rules. They were going to experience the year as independently as possible; they did not want to be known as a unit—Tom and Marti. “We’re on our own separate journeys in the program,” says Marti. To that end, the Mattias make a point not to sit together during the frequent TOWER Fellow events—weekly lunches with speakers and other regular group activities. When others would see them sitting across the room from each other, Marti reports with a laugh, “Some people thought we weren’t getting along.”
With their vastly different agendas for the program, it wasn’t difficult to stay separate. Tom thought that taking courses in civics and governmental policy would be his entrée to finding his way to give back. In the fall he took classes in voter suppression and immigration, but because he and Marti loved theater he added in an acting class for “fun.” And found it was more than fun—it ignited something in him.
In the spring, he hit the theater thread harder, taking classes in playwriting and theater workshopping. “I’m looking at theater as a platform to tell a story about society and civics,” Tom says. “I really like the theater piece.”
He also began helping the Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the LBJ School of Public Affairs with marketing and positioning. The TOWER staff encourages fellows to share their expertise either in classes (some become guest speakers) or on projects on campus. “It’s a way for us to use our talents to pay it forward,” says Tom. For her part, Marti has worked with Moody College to brainstorm the Ethical Leadership in Newsrooms Curriculum Project.
When picking classes, Marti was impelled by a desire to fill in gaps she saw in her own education and to understand the current cultural moment. She leapt at the chance to explore freedom and democracy with a leading philosopher. Her interest in LGBTQ issues and Black Lives Matter led her to a class called Race, Gender and Surveillance. She also studies literature (“I love the class taught by the vampire-expert professor whose fashion taste is Goth”) and has received guidance from UT’s Michener Center for Writers. In addition to shaping her novel, she has penned a short story that focuses on the #MeToo movement.
Marriage as a Venn Diagram
Their separate pursuits provide a spark of excitement when they come together at the end of the day. “We have very lively discussions every night,” Marti says. “I was scared at the beginning that I’d get in Tom’s way [by interfering with his progress in the program]. But being in this together has brought great energy to our marriage.” Marti compares their marriage now to a Venn Diagram, where they each have their own spheres of interest and a sliver of overlap. “We feel young again, when we get together it’s like having a date.” Marti smiles coquettishly at Tom. “He’s my boyfriend on campus.”
Fortunately for the Mattias, they have more “dating” ahead. The spring semester has ended, with the last part spent in online sessions as part of the university’s COVID 19 response. Because of the truncated experience, UT is allowing this school year’s cohort of TOWER Fellows to return for another semester.
They will be thrilled to be back among “twenty-year-olds who renew our faith in the future,” Marti says, and with friends they’ve made in the program. “Everyone is so supportive of each other. That’s what sets the TOWER Fellows apart from different encore programs,” says Tom. “We’re created a community of new friends; we may have different politics or religion or cultural views. But we’re with smart people in our same life stage who are interested in learning. I couldn’t be happier.”