It’s Saturday afternoon and the writhing, pretzel-shaped silhouettes of Cedar Point’s roller coasters pepper the horizon near Jim Matia’s Sandusky summer house.
On this day — 7-7-07 — the far-off, faded shapes at the amusement park conjure an obvious question: Is a fella’s life a series of unpredictable, pell-mell twists and turns — luck, per se — or is man the author of his own destiny?
Maybe Jim Matia, 77, was sorting out the answer as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake. Or maybe, after 77 years, he had it all figured out.
“It’s all about family,” Matia said, offering a perpetual grin that hinted that he knew a secret and was willing to share it if you just sat and had a piece of cake.
His bushy eyebrows shadowing a pair of hazel-green eyes, Matia offered a cowboy squint whenever he got to talking about days past.
“Horses,” said Matia, a native Elyrian who spends summers in Sandusky. “If my horse is running, get outta my way, because I’m going to the races.”
Family members — including Matia’s seven grandchildren — stood nearby, smiling as Matia got to talking.
“You could just sit back and listen to him all day long,” said Darrin Grella, a family member. “He’s a big-time family guy. He’s got some great stories.”
Stories that, as Matia tells them, sometimes involve luck.
“I had triple-bypass heart surgery in 1990,” Matia said. “My doctor said to me last year, ‘You haven’t had any problems since? You’re a lucky man.’ ”
“He said if I take off 75 pounds, he’d guarantee me
25 more years,” Matia said. “But it’s about luck.”
Luck at the horse track, or a secret fishing hole.
“I like horses, and I like fishing,” Matia said. “I don’t like golf.”
His love for horse racing started in the early 1950s, when a $2 bet at a local track won him $2,200. He bought his own horse with the winnings.
“I told my wife I bought a race horse, and I thought she’d throw me out the front door, without opening the front door,” he said. “But I got her approval.”
In 1961 — 10 years into horse racing — Lady Luck smiled on Jim Matia and his horse, Loyal Son. They made it to the Kentucky Derby that year, with the horse finishing ninth. Just qualifying for the Kentucky Derby — the Super Bowl for quadrupeds — was satisfaction aplenty, Matia said.
“Everybody tries to get a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but my horse … he had some credentials,” Matia said. “It was my claim to fame.”
But like a high-stakes horse race, life itself takes its own twists and turns over the years — some tragic, some joyful. The trick, it would seem, is to turn the tragedies into lessons, and the celebrations into memories.
Matia used anything but luck for that.
Ask any of the three Matia children — Jim Matia Jr., 52, Jack Matia, 50, and Jayne Eisbrenner, 54, all native Elyrians — and they’ll say their father was an expert planner, a family man and skilled businessman who didn’t rely on blind luck to dictate his life’s course.
“My dad was a great planner,” said Jack. “He’d spend months getting ready for our annual Canadian fishing trip. He taught us all about hard work, ever since we were young.”
When the elder Jim Matia’s mother died in 1986, he started a steadfast commitment to host an annual family picnic, Eisbrenner said.
“Every year since, we’ve had a family get-together,” Eisbrenner said. “If you can keep the family together, that’s what life is all about.”
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TOM MAHL / CHRONICLE
Grandchildren of Jim Matia (center) celebrate with him on his birthday. FROM LEFT: Vince Matia, Ellen Eisbrenner, Jacquelyn Matia, Paul Matia, Michelle Matia, Allison Matia and Eric Eisbrenner.