In remembrance of alumnus Ruben Matos

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USF College of Public Health (COPH) alumnus Ruben Matos demonstrated unwavering determination from his early beginnings as a student in the COPH.

He was one of the first 100 students to walk the halls of the COPH building when he decided to pursue his MPH in health care administration and management in the 1980s.

He joined the COPH after earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from Interamericana University of Puerto Rico.

Raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Ruben told the COPH in an alumni interview that the importance of education was instilled in him at young age by his parents.

USF College of Public Health alumnus Ruben Matos. Ruben also received the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq War during Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo courtesy of the Matos family).

“Education was a big deal for them and they always said that was the only legacy they could leave me, so going to school was my job,” he said.

His passion for both health care management and public health was manifested throughout his career.

Upon graduating with his master’s degree, Ruben stayed in Tampa and worked for St. Joseph’s Hospital and Pediatric Health Choice, before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1994 where he made a career of helping others using public health.

As an active duty lieutenant colonel in the Medical Service Corps, he combined his public health passion of putting the right mix of medical personnel in place so that there was proper patient access to care.

He last served as an International Health Specialist for CENTCOM at MacDill Air Force Base before retiring to Lutz, Fla. in August 2020 with his wife and two children.

He passed away from COVID-related complications in February 2021.

Ruben Matos (far left) with his wife Celeste Matos and their children, Ariana Matos (a 2017 USF alumna) and Ian McRoberts. (Photo courtesy of Celeste Matos)

Ruben was with his wife Celeste for 30 years, and they were married for 28 of those years. They met at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, where they were both employed, while Matos was also working on his master’s degree.

“I met him on my first day of work there,” Celeste said. “He came in and asked for someone else. I pointed him in that direction and then went back to my work. I guess he was quite taken by me because he kept trying to engage me in conversation and would make a special point to come and visit.”

Ruben Matos with his wife Celeste Matos. (Photo courtesy of Celeste Matos)

Celeste said her husband was a great father. She said he was very giving and determined, with a special skill for solving problems.

“He was very intelligent, compassionate and dedicated,” she said. “He was a very dedicated military officer and very proud of that. He would help anyone out. He was that type of person.”

A lasting legacy

Distinguished Service Professor of Public Health, Medicine and Pharmacy Dr. Jay Wolfson, who is also associate vice president for health law, policy and safety and the senior associate dean of USF’s Morsani College of Medicine, served as Ruben’s advisor and professor while he was a student.

Celeste recalled how Ruben saw him as a mentor and friend.

In his alumni interview, Ruben described Wolfson as, “quite possibly the most motivational professor I’ve ever had. As an individual, he was great to talk to; as a professor, he was engaging.”

Ruben Matos (second left) with Dr. Jay Wolfson (front left) and classmates in 1987. (Photo courtesy of the Matos family)

“What I remember about Ruben is what I would want other people to know about him as well,” Wolfson said. “He was honest, sincere, humble, sometimes even self-effacing. He worked extra hard to make sure that he got the pieces right, sometimes struggling against challenges of new information and skills, but mastering them. Ruben Matos was an effective leader as well as a strong member of any team. He always kept in touch, sending emails, and when he was in town, arranging to come by the office to chat and catch me up on his work.”

Wolfson said that Ruben was also a student in his health care financial management course.

“Among the very first things we study are basics of accounting and terminology. One of the core concepts is that of an ‘asset’ which is ‘an item of value intended to produce future value.’ Ruben Matos was an asset to everything and with everything he did. I am proud that I had the opportunity to learn with him.”

Celeste said that Ruben was a very proud USF Bull, having twice served on the USF Alumni Association board of directors with executive director Bill McCausland who referred to him as “a dear friend and passionate USF alumnus who is already greatly missed.”

McCausland said “Ruben always referred to me as ‘my amigo,’ a term that was genuine and heartfelt and one that I will always cherish.” Ruben was also founder and first president of the Latin American Student Association (LASA) at USF.

Finding new hope

Losing a loved one to COVID has been a difficult journey for Celeste and her children, but she urges others going through this type of loss to remember to find ways to keep going.   

“Time heals. Keep reminding yourself to breath, you’re a survivor,” she said. “Find what helps you, whether it’s prayer, meditation, journaling; you have to get in touch with those feelings, you have to let them out, you can’t suppress them.”

She recalled how a recent grocery trip with her daughter brought out those emotions, just by seeing one of Ruben’s favorite foods.

“Memories and emotions will come out at the weirdest times and it’s OK. Allow yourself to recognize your emotions. Try to remember the good and happy times and live in those memories. You will learn to accept your loss, little but little. It takes time, don’t expect too much, try to be gentle with yourself and find what gives you joy and do it.”

Ruben Matos (left) and his family. (Photo courtesy of Celeste Matos)
Ruben Matos with his mother (center) and wife Celeste in December 2020. (Photo courtesy of Celeste Matos)

“What you put out there comes back to you twofold. Continue to be the kind, compassionate person that you are. You’re not the grief, you’re not the sorrow, you are that person. Find yourself again and try to move forward; sometimes it’s just one little step, moment, and breath at a time. But, they add up,” she said.

Celeste said she wants others to remember her husband for, “his joyfulness, his exuberance, his compassion and his determination to make things better

She also wants them to remember how he helped others strive for their goals and achieve them.”

“There is adversity in everybody’s life, you just have to set your goals and know that one day is going to be better than the next day and that there are people who are there to help you. He was one of those people,” she said.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health