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May 2, 2012 Volume 33, No. 30

Campus worker with physical challenges devoted employee until death

Matt Ross

IN MEMORIAM Don and Betsy Sisson of Columbia were the legal guardians of Matt Ross, who died in March at age 46 after 24 years at Mizzou. Despite his physical challenges, Ross retained his sense of humor and work ethic. Rob Hill photo


MU worker was a lover of books and sports

 Matt Ross loved reading Greek mythologies. Hercules, who exuded godlike strength among other mortals, was his favorite character “because of his trials and tribulations,” he said in March. 

Likewise, Ross, an MU employee for 24 years who died March 16 at age 46, faced many trials and tribulations. 

A tragic accident early in Ross’ life resulted in a lifetime of surgeries and rehabilitation programs. Yet his extreme challenges were all tempered by the love of his legal guardians and his own inner strength

Tragedy strikes early

As a boy, Ross loved to sit in the balcony of the First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City to watch his father, the Rev. Charles Dudley Ross, preach the Gospels. The 11-year-old was talkative and bright with big dreams.

But his life changed July 31, 1976, during a family vacation.

The Rosses were in their Fiat driving near the Missouri-Illinois border when a car pulled out in front of them. The family vehicle plowed into the car. His mother, Arlene, sister Rebekah, and Charles were killed. His sister Valerie, then 12, survived with a few injuries.

The accident paralyzed Ross’ left side. Bones in his face shattered on impact. Surgeons picked out about 130 bone fragments from his face. He suffered severe brain damage. The precocious, energetic boy was permanently scarred. He was left in a state of physical and mental devastation.

Don and Betsy Sisson, parishioners at First Presbyterian, took him under their wings. After exactly 50 weeks in the hospital, Ross was released and would live with the Sissons for the next 35 years, first in Jefferson City and then in Columbia. 

Years of grueling rehabilitation followed. “When you have a head injury like that, you have to learn to do everything all over again,” Don said.

Soon after the accident, Ross started having seizures, which remained an issue until his death. No longer could he sit in the church balcony as he did before the accident. His parents worried that he might have a seizure and fall over the balcony’s rail.

Although the crash stripped Ross of much potential, he still aspired to live a normal life. Betsy remembers watching her oldest son, Don Jr., attempt to teach the partially paralyzed Ross how to ride a bike. 

The incident proved nerve-wracking. But Don Jr. and her other son, John, treated Ross just like a brother — with roughhousing and playful teasing.

Though a passionate sports fan, Ross couldn’t play the sports he loved. So he did the next best thing. While a student at Rock Bridge High School, he worked as the equipment manager for the high school football team. 

After graduating high school in 1984, Ross wanted a job. He trained with Advent Enterprises, an employment center in Columbia now called Job Point. Ross volunteered and was later hired at MU’s Office of Animal Resources. His duties included preparing feed and bedding for a variety of animals. 

Popular MU employee

His colleagues agree that he contributed as well as any other staff member. Jane Robinson, his supervisor at Animal Resources, said he was an exceptional worker.

“He was good about reporting any problems,” Robinson said. “This was not a charitable gesture on my part.” Matt studied for, tested and received a national certification for Assistant Laboratory Animal Technician, she said.

Like any hard-working employee, he impressed his employers and improved his department. 

“I certainly believe that our department would not be the same without Matt and that the university is extremely lucky to have had such a devoted employee for so many years,” said Jennifer Davison, fellow animal services technician.

But it wasn’t just hard work and self-determination that impressed his colleagues. It was also his quick humor.

 “I don’t know of one co-worker he hadn’t caught off guard with his good-natured wit,” animal resources employee Sherrie Neff said.

When Ross’ kidneys failed two years ago, he was placed on dialysis. Sister Valerie offered to donate one of her kidneys, but she wasn’t a matching donor. The miraculous progress he had made plateaued. To survive he had to have dialysis four times daily. Each 30-minute treatment, which amounted to two hours of dialysis each day, sapped his strength.

But this didn’t stop him from doing the thing he loved most — working at the university with his colleagues. 

His university health care benefits paid for most of the burdensome surgery and treatments. Robinson even had her office sterilized to accommodate Ross’ daily dialyses so he could still come to work. He later began an overnight treatment process at home.

Book lover to the end 

To relax after a hard work week, Ross spent most Friday nights at the Columbia Mall. He couldn’t drive, so Betsy drove him there.

While at the mall, Matt spent 90 percent of his time at Barnes & Noble, where he found peace and entertainment among the tomes of literature. In addition to his insatiable appetite for Greek mythologies, he also devoured mysteries and the Harry Potter series.

An unyielding admiration for the Mizzou basketball team also kept him busy. Ross purchased season tickets every year to cheer on the Tigers until his sickness overcame him. 

Ross received the February 2012 Service Champion Award from the MU Staff Advisory Council and was nominated for the Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award. Don told Ross of the honor and nomination before he died.

To his last breath, Ross was dedicated to his job. His final words before going into a coma: “I don’t think I will be able to go to work tomorrow.”

— Trevor Eischen