Sarah Mathews was not content sitting still. At the age of 97, she still had an affinity for traveling and was seen around Oakland walking one or more dogs six or seven times every day.
Most people in historic Oakland knew her and her pups, and folks watched for her, making sure she safely returned to her home on East Gulley Avenue after each of her walks.
Mathews, who lived in Oakland for more than 40 years, died Sept. 27. She had been staying in a rehabilitation center following a fall that rendered her unable to walk.
“She was so loved and known for her love of her beloved dogs that she walked on Oakland streets and bike trail many times a day,” her daughter, Patricia Ward, wrote on Facebook following her mother’s death. “I thank all of you that looked after her on her walks in case she fell or couldn’t make it back home.”
Residents responded with heartfelt comments to the family: She led the “quintessential Oakland life” and was “an institution in Oakland.”
Among those keeping an eye out for Mathews was Renee Mullen at Oakland Town Hall. The two had bonded over their dogs.
“It’s really just from the walks; and it really goes back to maybe 15 years ago,” Mullen said. “She’s always had a little dog she walked. First it was a little poodle, and we had some dogs, and our dogs would always want to come out and play.”
Mullen said Milo, Mathews’ most recent dog, “took a shine” to her about five years ago. She said Mathews told her, ‘If something ever happens to me, he’s yours.’”
When Mathew fell and entered the rehab center, Mullen agreed to take in the 20-pound chihuahua-terrier mix.
“He was fat because Mama fed him everything from the table,” Ward said. “If he wanted coffee, she (dipped her finger in her cup and) gave him coffee. Whatever he wanted, she gave him.”
BECOMING A FLORIDA GIRL
Mathews was 6 when she moved from her hometown of Sandersville, Georgia, to Winter Garden. Her father was a Winter Garden police officer, and the family, which included two brothers, lived in a small apartment over the police station.
She met her future husband, Dan, at the bar in downtown Winter Garden; she was about 17, and he was 10 years older.
“The story was she would tell her mother she was going to the movies at the Winter Garden Theater, and she would go into the bar and meet my dad,” Ward said.
Their courtship was brief, and they married that same year. They had two children, a son and a daughter, and eventually enjoyed six grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and eight-great-great-grandchildren.
Both Dan and Sarah Mathews had careers in the citrus industry — he drove a tractor in the orange groves, and she worked in the Battaglia Fruit Company packing house in Winter Garden.
“He helped grow it, and she packed it,” Ward said.
“She did that for many, many years, probably until she retired,” she said. “It was long, hard hours, standing on her feet all day, and the holidays were even worse — but she enjoyed it and met a lot of people she enjoyed. She was a very hard worker, her and my dad both. They both saved their money to support themselves, and they did it every day and they worked hard. She was a go-getter.”
The Mathewses moved to Oakland in the mid-1970s, occupying the house on Gulley that her parents bought in 1941. As they aged, they found it increasingly more difficult to keep up with the house, so Pat and Pete Ward bought it, tore it down and built a two-story home with a side apartment for the parents.
Sarah and Dan lived there until their deaths.
Out back is a large camelia bush that shades the graves of Mathews’ beloved dogs — all of which walked Oakland’s roads with their devoted owner. Her favorite dog, Tebow, however, has a special resting place near the house.
“Everybody liked (Mama) because she was always telling stories about her family and her dogs,” Ward said. “She was a good woman, a good working woman. A very stubborn woman. (She) and my dad had been married 54 years when he passed away. We had a big party for their anniversary, for their 54th, and she had a really pretty dress on, and that’s what we buried her in.”