- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

Four firefighters, wearing white gloves and white hats, gingerly lifted a small wooden casket covered with the U.N. flag from the back of a firetruck outside St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Wheaton.

Former President Jimmy Carter gave the eulogy. Oprah Winfrey was among the 1,300 mourners.

Yesterday’s funeral for Matthew “Mattie” Stepanek came a week after he succumbed to the rare form of muscular dystrophy with which he had struggled during his 13 years. He was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Aspen Hill next to his three siblings, who died of the same disease, all at young ages.

Plastered on the casket’s side — next to a firefighter shield and Harley-Davidson slogan — was a bumper sticker that read: “Be a peacemaker.”

The message of peace was one that Mattie tried to convey in his best-selling books of poetry and through his work as an advocate for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. His five volumes of poetry sold more than 1 million copies and touched many with uplifting themes.

“I have known kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers,” Mr. Carter, Mattie’s childhood hero, said in his eulogy. “But the most extraordinary person I have ever known in my life was Mattie Stepanek.”

Miss Winfrey, who featured Mattie and his work several times on her talk show, spoke briefly.

Many of the people who filled the church had met the boy from Rockville — through his work at the MDA, from his church and school, at charity events or even at book signings. Others had never known him but came anyway.

Roseanne Mangarella, a preschool teacher in Philadelphia, was given a copy of one of Mattie’s books and later used it in class. She took a bus to Washington on Sunday to be at his funeral.

“My heart was telling me I had to help come celebrate this,” she said as she stood in line to enter the church. “This is my way of meeting him.”

Firefighters in dress uniforms came from around the Washington area and as far away as New York, giving Mattie a funeral procession akin to that of a fallen comrade. The Muscular Dystrophy Association is a principal charity for the International Association of Firefighters, and Mattie often took part in the union’s annual softball tournament in Landover.

Stacy Addison of Norfolk knew Mattie from the softball games. She wore a small plastic half-heart on a chain around her neck, that when combined with the other half reads “Best Friend.” Mattie had the other half, she said.

“He was someone so young who said words that touched people so much,” she said. “That was the impact his poetry had on people.”

In a section of front pews, men with deep tans, ponytails and often full beards wore jeans and leather vests inscribed with the Harley-Davidson logo. The motorcycle company and its owners’ associations also work with the MDA.

“He was always laughing and cheery, even when he was in the hospital,” said Dave Kiem, who met Mattie in 2001 and rose at 5:30 a.m. to ride his Harley from his home in Eagle, Pa.

In his eulogy, Mr. Carter recalled his three years of correspondence with Mattie. The two met in the summer of 2001 when it appeared Mattie was about to die. Mr. Carter made a surprise visit to his hospital room as a last wish for the boy. Mattie, who idolized the Nobel Peace Prize winner, later told his mother he first thought the man who walked in was a presidential impersonator.

Mattie went on to recover and sent Mr. Carter a series of letters in which he discussed his desire to become a peacemaker, proposing that he and Mr. Carter write a book together called “Just Peace.” He told the former president some of his deepest secrets.

To prove Mr. Carter truly was his hero, Mattie sent him a 20-minute videotape of himself at age 6, re-enacting some moments from Mr. Carter’s life, complete with costumes. Mr. Carter joked that he used one of the “most atrocious” Southern accents he had ever heard.

Mr. Carter said he was impressed with Mattie’s knowledge of international affairs, recalling how the boy was moved to tears by fighting in Iraq because he thought world leaders hadn’t tried hard enough for peace instead of war.

Mr. Carter said he was glad that Mattie was no longer suffering from the disease that slowly killed him. But he said the boy’s message will continue to resonate long after his death.

“Mattie’s legacy is forever,” he said.

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