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Clayton Mathews is given the Culver School District's Torch Award for excellence.

TERESA JACKSON/MADRAS PIONEER - Culver High School's Clayton Mathews was selected as the first student to receive the district's Torch Award for excellence.If someone had told Brad Kudlac that he would be nominating Clayton Mathews for an excellence award from the Culver School Board back when the 18-year-old was in middle school and Kudlac was principal there, Kudlac wouldn't have believed it.

But on March 12, the board presented its Torch Award for excellence to Mathews, a Culver High School senior, making him the first student to receive the award.

Kudlac, who's now principal at Culver High School, nominated Mathews for the award in concert with district Superintendent Stefanie Garber and three Culver High School staff members, who wrote letters in support of the nomination.

The school board has given out three or four such awards per year for about the past three years, but up to now the awards have always been given to staff members who had exceeded expectations or gone above and beyond their duty.

Kudlac and Garber wanted the award to go to a student this time, and they settled easily on Mathews.

Mathews, 18, has been mostly raised by grandparents Lori and Mark Owen as his parents have not been a consistent presence in his life. The award was to acknowledge Mathews' remarkable success in overcoming very difficult family circumstances to become an exemplary student.

COURTESY PHOTO - Clayton Mathews displays his Torch Award from the Culver School District.Mathews maintained strong grades throughout high school and participated in football and basketball for three years. This spring would have been his third season running track had the coronavirus pandemic not ended the school year early.

The award came with a trophy and a certificate, but Mathews says he will treasure the letters from his coaches and teacher the most, along with the praise from Kudlac. The letters in support of his nomination emphasize Mathews' resilience, work ethic, and leadership skills.

Kudlac and Garber both got choked up when presenting the award, and Mathews said he got a little teary too when the board read out loud the letters from his teacher and coaches, especially coach Shea Little.

"Stuff that he said kind of made me choke up because it reminded me of football and how much I miss being there with him and all the people," Mathews said.

Little, who is the head football coach and athletic director, wrote, "Clayton Mathews has developed into an amazing leader both on and off the field. He has chosen the high road in every situation in his life. His maturity is above and beyond any student his age. He has fought through some adversity in his life and has chosen to take that adversity and turn it into a positive learning experience."

Lori Owen said her grandson has always been mature for his age and was very protective of his two younger siblings from a young age.

"He's an old soul," she said. "He was the protector of the family. When he came to live with us permanently, we had to tell him, 'You can be a child now. You're not the dad.'"

Still, Kudlac said, Mathews was a challenging student when he started at Culver Middle School in eighth grade. Kudlac was principal there at the time.

"He did the biggest 180-degree turnaround I have ever seen in a student," Kudlac said. "Ever. Clayton went from one of the worst students to one of the best students."

In fact, in presenting the award to Mathews at the school board meeting, Kudlac began by asking Mathews about their relationship when Mathews was in middle school, and Mathews said, "I hated you."

"The feeling was mutual. He didn't like me, I didn't like him. He caused a lot of problems with his teachers; he got bad grades," said Kudlac. "And now he's the completely opposite type of person. He has become one of my favorite kids that I have ever been around."

Kudlac attributes Mathews' turnaround to perseverance and exceptional intellect. Whatever the reason, Mathews made a fresh start in high school.

Language arts teacher Wendee Bowen wrote, "Clayton Mathews is an amazing student and human being. I have known him for the past four years. As a student he has never changed. From his freshman year until now, he has been on a course for success. Clayton is a young man that is a natural leader. Students look to him for leadership. He is kind and will do whatever is asked of him. Clayton is respectable in and out of school."

Basketball coach John Spinelli wrote, "No one works harder than Clayton, and no one has improved as much as he has in the past two years. Clayton was always very appreciative and was the only player to say thank you after every practice. Clayton has not let tough situations in his past affect the type of person and player he is today, and I know he will be successful at whatever he does in the future."

Mathews' future includes going to Central Oregon Community College next year. He had planned on going to Western Oregon University, but the coronavirus pandemic convinced him to stay closer to home for now.

This spring, Mathews is working four days a week babysitting his three young cousins in Bend and taking an online course through COCC. He will have 14 credits under his belt when he starts college next fall.

Longer-term, Mathews' aim is to study law, inspired by a mock trial class he took at Culver High School his sophomore year. It's too early to decide on a law school, but Mathews said he wants to stay in Oregon.

Mathews is disappointed that there will be no prom this year but is looking forward to the graduation ceremony, which Garber said will be held whenever possible. In the meantime, parents of seniors are planning a parade in Culver on May 16.

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