HAHIRA – Karen Conboy Matz has always regretted not attending the military funeral of Cpl. John E. McDonald.
Fifty years ago, Monday, April 15, 1969, McDonald, who grew up in Hahira, was killed in Vietnam.
From late 1968 until his death, McDonald, a soldier fighting in Vietnam, and Matz, a teenager in California, exchanged letters. She estimates receiving 16-17 letters from him.
She was heartbroken by his death and wanted to attend his South Georgia funeral. But she was 16 years old. She lived on the other side of the country. She had never met McDonald or his family.
She had written a letter to a solider serving in Vietnam as part of a school project called Operation Christmas. McDonald received her letter. He wrote back. She wrote him again.
A correspondence developed between the 22-year-old soldier and the 16-year-old girl. Though they never met face to face, Matz said McDonald was her first crush.
And now, six months after their letters started, he had been killed in Vietnam. Her parents were willing to buy her a plane ticket to Georgia.
Karen was young and the prospect of flying alone, cross country, to meet people she had never met at the funeral of a young man whom she knew so well in letters but had never seen, well, it was daunting.
She wanted her mother to accompany her, but her family had just started a new business and could afford only one ticket.
Worried about going alone, Karen didn’t attend Johnny’s funeral.
“I’ve always regretted not going to his funeral when Johnny died,” Matz said this past week. “I’ve regretted it for 50 years.”
Come Memorial Day weekend, she plans to ease that regret.
She plans to visit Hahira and the grave of Cpl. John E. McDonald.
Matz, who now lives in Nevada, and Tim Coombs, a Hahira resident with the Hahira Historical Society, and his wife, Linda Coombs, have been discussing a visit since he located her nearly three years ago.
“He’s been telling me for the past few years that they would love to have me come out and I told him recently, I’m coming,” Matz said.
“We hope she will come into town early and spend a few days with us,” Coombs said.
He said McDonald still has family living in Lowndes and neighboring South Georgia counties. He plans to arrange a meeting with Matz and family.
Organizers hope she will attend and perhaps say a few words at the Hahira Memorial Day observation, 10 a.m. Monday, May 27, Hahira American Legion Post 218, Coombs said.
She will be taken to the one-mile portion of Shiloh Road that was designated as the Cpl. John E. McDonald Memorial Highway in the fall of 2015.
And she will likely visit McDonald’s gravesite, Coombs said.
Coombs said other things have been planned to welcome Matz to South Georgia.
“We want to do things to show that her relationship with John was appreciated and we want to do things to honor John McDonald,” Coombs said.
Efforts to name a portion of highway for McDonald a few years ago led Coombs down the road to find Karen Conboy Matz.
The son of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard McDonald, John E. McDonald attended Hahira High School.
He was one of six children.
He loved cars and going to the races, according to family.
He reportedly worked in an air-conditioning plant before being drafted into the Army.
He was a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He served as a machine-gunner in South Vietnam. He had been in the Army 11 months and in Nam for about five months when the 22-year-old was killed in action April 15, 1969.
Decades later, while researching information for the road naming, Coombs discovered the story of McDonald’s wartime pen pal, Karen Conboy. Her story was published in the Manteca, Calif., newspaper then republished May 22, 1969, in the Hahira Gold Leaf newspaper.
The Valdosta Daily Times published a story about Coombs searching for Conboy in April 2016. Coombs said he received several responses from attorneys and a private investigator offering to help find her.
Coombs continued investigating, too. He found old newspapers from Manteka with a photo of the teen Karen Conboy. Using the photo as reference, he searched the Internet and found a woman of about the right age who resembled the teenager. The older woman was Karen Matz, who worked in a Reno, Nev., clinic.
Coombs called the clinic but was told Matz was on leave. Coombs shared his story and why he called. Clinic personnel took his name and number and promised to try reaching Matz.
In relaying Coombs’ message, as soon as the friend at the clinic said the name John E. McDonald, Matz said, “You can give him my number.”
Matz told The Times then she was shocked to hear McDonald’s name after so many years and even more surprised that someone was looking for her in connection with him after so many years.
Though devastated by McDonald’s death, Karen was a teen-age girl. Her life continued.
Karen married and they had a son. Her husband died. She moved to Reno to be closer to her son while he attended school. He’s now a doctor. Matz stayed in Reno where she has many friends.
But she never forgot the young man named Johnny.
“When we were writing those letters,” Matz said, “we had so much in common.”
He wrote of the possibility of visiting her after his tour of duty in the war. Despite the age difference, her father promised taking him to see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco if he visited.
Then, April 1969, she was at a 4-H camp, about 50 miles from home, when her father unexpectedly arrived in his Dodge Dart.
“He said, you have to come home with me now,” Matz said in a past interview. “You have received a telegram. Mom and I opened it and think you should come home to see it.”
He said nothing else.
At home, the telegram informed her that John McDonald had been killed. McDonald’s mother had sent the telegram from Hahira.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Matz said. “I could not stop crying. I didn’t go to school for a couple days. I was so devastated.”
For years, her parents and the McDonalds regularly exchanged Christmas cards. Matz called the McDonalds for several years, even after she married and had a son. She estimated regularly calling until the late 1970s or early 1980s until time passed and the calls stopped.
“I felt like I knew the family after Johnny passed,” she said. “It was comforting for me and I think it was comforting for Johnny’s mom.”
But still, Matz has lived with that regret. The regret of not coming to Hahira 50 years ago to meet his mother in person, of not coming to South Georgia to say goodbye.
On Memorial Day, at long last, perhaps, she can put that regret to rest.