LOCUST GROVE — He had the crowd laughing and clapping during much of his speech that day at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. But what only a few people in the room knew at the time was that Sean Matthews was in the middle of fighting a tumor that had taken over his brain “like an octopus.”
The disabled veteran from Locust Grove was a star that day, having competed with more than 50 other challengers hoping to win an opportunity of a lifetime. He came home with the “Most Engaged” award and a prize that included having business professionals help him develop his dream of creating his own company. The pros will work as mentors for free up to a year helping Matthews with a business plan for a line of wines he has labeled Make Your Mark.
Matthews heard about the Veterans Entrepreneur Program (VEP) sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s Gary W. Rollins College of Business from a friend at the VA hospital.
“He said it was like a little vacation, and I was like, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to get away,’” Matthews said with a laugh. “I didn’t have a business plan at the time, but once we applied for the program, I said, ‘Wow. I’ve got to get to work.’”
The 15-year U.S. Navy veteran has made wine for most of his adult life. His uncles and other relatives work with him from time to time, and he enjoys growing grapes for his special hobby on his 7 acres of land in Henry County. When he heard about the VEP, he said this could be his best chance of turning his hobby into a real business.
VEP involved Matthews taking an online course to develop a business plan, followed by an eight-day program of 10-12-hour days at the University of Tennessee, which he said they all called “boot camp.”
Matthews was one of 18 selected from more than 50 applicants to attend, with travel, meals and lodging paid for through the program.
“It was an opportunity to talk with business owners and business leaders in the community,” he said. “Some were veterans, as well.” He said highlights included meeting U.S. Congressman Mark Green, who represents Tennessee. He is a former Navy flight surgeon from Seal Team Six, who interrogated Saddam Hussein. The group also got to meet Mike Walden, a veteran who owns Walden Security, along with many other business and community leaders during their eight days in Tennessee.
It was Matthews’ pitch about his wine business that was peppered with humor and funny stories about his family that he made at the end of the program that got the judges’ attention and got Matthews the top award.
He just had brain surgery weeks before and said he was not even sure he would be able to go through with all that was required of him during the competition.
“It was very emotional,” he said. “I felt weird. I got the award, and I was crying. They wanted me to speak. It was very emotional of what I’d gone through.”
It was a high in a year that had its share of lows. Already disabled due to kidney disease and a muscle disorder, the veteran was now engaged in another fight for his life.
“I’m receiving radiation treatment right now,” he said as he was interviewed for this story while staying in a hospital in Atlanta. “I have a brain tumor. It’s benign, but it’s like an octopus and won’t stop. We’re hoping the radiation will stop it.”
At the time of this interview, Matthews was at the proton radiation center in Midtown Atlanta for a 33-day stay at the center’s Hope Lodge where he was receiving special radiation treatments. He has already had two brain surgeries and said he is glad Georgia has this kind of facility, where patients like him can receive such advanced medical treatment.
He and his family moved to Georgia from North Carolina and settled in Henry County in 2006. Matthews and his wife Kimberly have three boys and two girls and all of them grew up helping their father in his vineyards.
At present, he can make only up to 200 gallons a year because his winemaking is considered a hobby, but if certain ordinances are changed in the county, Matthews can turn his hobby into a business and make unlimited wine to sell.
On his 7 acres in Locust Grove, Matthews has a small vineyard with 11 rows with three vines, each of which grow muscadines and other grapes with much of it transferred from roots in his uncle’s vineyard in Maryland.
“We make craft wine,” he said. “We make wine from different fruits. Wine from tea, strawberry, ginger, kiwi ... When folks started tasting the wine, they loved it. One lady didn’t believe it was mine. She couldn’t believe how clear it was. I enjoy doing it and talking about it.”
Taking part in the VEP got him motivated to do what he needed to do to turn his hobby into a business, Matthews said, adding that he wants to move beyond making small bottles of wine and giving them to friends. He wants to do something more and chose a name for his business that has special meaning to him.
“It’s called Make Your Mark, and in life, do the same,” he said. “I’m leaving a legacy for my kids and grandkids.”
Growing up in Maryland, Matthews said his parents and uncles greatly influenced his life. One uncle was a plumber and took his nephew to work with him, teaching him that trade. His father was a carpenter and taught his son how to build. Another uncle taught him how to tie a tie. He learned how to lay brick by working with another uncle. He went to vocational school and worked full-time as a brick layer.
And then he went into the Navy and didn’t even know how to swim. But he learned and served as a corpsman and field medic for the Marines. Matthews credits his wife for “pushing” him and being a great help in all he has achieved.
He worked as a dental lab technician in the Navy, and then the military sent him to school to become a dental hygienist. He graduated in 1998 and was president of his class. He continued his education and was able to get his license to give injections. Matthews holds an associate’s degree in applied sciences from Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., and his RDH (registered dental hygienist) license from UNC at Chapel Hill, N.C. He is close to finishing his bachelor’s degree from UNC, but his health put that on hold. When Matthews moved to Georgia, he continued his career by serving at the VA hospital.
“I just love working with people and talking to disabled veterans and making them comfortable as I treated them,” he said.
Now working on plans for Make Your Mark and looking forward to being able to turn it into a business, Matthews is excited that his uncle Kelvin Williams, whom he calls his mentor, will partner with him in the business when Williams retires from the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C., this year.
Until then, he will continue to tend the vineyards and experiment with his wine.
“My favorite is called Birthday Surprise,” he said. “All the fruit that’s on the property is in the wine. We also have wine from watermelon, blackberries, peaches, strawberries. My neighbors also bring us tons of fruit. Another neighbor had a tree he wanted to cut down. We used that 25-year-old oak to make barrels for fermenting. We give them wine for helping us.”
Hoping for changes in the county ordinance, Matthews said he hopes to be able to put wine in local restaurants and for his business to become part of the community.
“We should all be making our mark,” he said. “...I just have a passion for it and for people enjoying my wine.”