Amateur historian's life was linked to Kittanning's past
Bill Mateer knew exactly what he was looking for.
During a drive through downtown Kittanning in late February with his wife, Jackie, the 86-year-old Mateer stumbled upon construction crews working to tear down the former flower shop building along Market Street.
To him, the demolition making way for a Rosebud Mining parking lot, created more than a gaping hole in the city block — it created a gaping hole in the city's history.
He returned to his Manor Township home and promptly descended to his “dungeon,” a basement workspace he had filled to the brim with old newspaper clippings, photographs and documents over the years.
Although the flimsy pieces of paper appeared in no discernible order to most everyone else, Mateer knew just where to start digging for the particular photograph he had in mind.
Once he had found it, Jackie drove him to the office of the Leader Times where, like he had so many times before, Mateer proudly presented what he had unearthed: a vintage photo of a parade down Market Street, prominently depicting the former Columbia Theater and adjacent Kittanning Sandwich Shop — now gone.
“He just loved his community so much,” said Jackie Mateer. “He couldn't stand to see pieces of history being taken away.”
Although his photo of Market Street was published in last Friday's “Remember When?” section of the Leader Times, Mateer sadly didn't get to see it.
He passed away on Thursday after a lengthy illness.
A lifelong resident of Armstrong County and a Navy veteran of World War II, Mateer spent much of his time ensuring the legacy of his hometown would live on.
He cultivated a fascination with the area and its history as an advertising salesman at the Leader-Vindicator in New Bethlehem, then eventually, as advertising director of the Leader Times.
“To him, being a salesman for the newspaper was a perfect job,” said Jackie Mateer.
“He loved talking to people more than anything, and he also loved traveling around the county.”
Mateer collected any and all relics linking the region to its past, and by the time he had retired in 1983, he had amassed a veritable museum of Kittanning-area treasures in his basement.
He used them as inspiration for his three books: “Memories of My Life,” published in 1988; 2001's “The Mateers of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania,” a compilation of his family history dating back to 1697; and, finally, 2010's “Pages From The Past,” a 428-page pictorial history of Armstrong County.
He also routinely submitted photos from his collection for publication in the Leader Times for the better part of the past few decades. It was a passion that Jackie Mateer said brought her husband a certain level of notoriety around town.
“Everywhere we went, someone would talk to him about his pictures in the paper,” she said. “It meant a lot to him that people — especially younger people — could see these things he remembered from his life and that he could help keep those memories alive.”
In fact, his wife said so many people have grown accustomed to seeing Mateer's photos in the Leader Times that some have asked what will happen to his collection now that he's gone.
“I honestly can't begin to think about it yet,” she said “There's so much.”
At one point, however, she said she'll be looking for buyers to take over the extensive assortment of memorabilia — her husband's life work.
“Hopefully we'll find someone with Bill's same interest in history,” she said through tears. “He spent his life trying to help people remember the way things used to be. He would never want people to forget.”
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.