When the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society decided to start an award to honor contributions to diving in the Great Lakes region, the first choice appeared obvious.
They picked Bill Matthies of Brainerd.
“The guy who has been in the business, been an instructor the longest ever and he happens to be in our state, what a perfect opportunity for us,” said Phil Kerber, preservation society president.
Matthies recently received the society’s first Dive Community Contribution Award for Exceptional Dedication to the Midwest Dive Community in Minneapolis. About 100 people attended the award banquet hosted as part of the Upper Midwest Scuba and Adventure Travel Show.
Matthies said when he received the award he joked the criteria may be the oldest active diver, but then they’d have to give him the award on an annual basis.
“It was an honor,” Matthies said.
An active professional diver for 52 years, Matthies has brought others to diving through his teaching of recreational and commercial divers. He founded the Minnesota School of Diving in Brainerd in 1959 and the Underwater Commercial Diver Corp. and Minnesota Commercial Diver Training Center in 1993. Central Lakes College students are able to take diving courses for credit through the dive school. Last year, Matthies and his son, Todd, opened a branch office of the Minnesota School of Diving in St. Cloud.
Kerber said what sets Matthies apart is not just his passion for diving — Matthies is a member of at least 10 diver certification agencies — but his varied activities from professional diver, business entrepreneur to diving instructor and book author.
“He’s done everything,” Kerber said. “You name it, he’s done it.”
Kerber said Matthies is one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of diving and was the teacher for many of the oldest dive shop owners in the state. Kerber said when Matthies was asked to speak, Matthies said he’s told his stories so many times they were probably getting old.
“I said, ‘No, there are probably many we haven’t heard yet,’” Kerber said.
A founding member of many of the dive organizations, Matthies said one of the things he’s most proud of is the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. He was a force in diving years before the PADI was formed in 1966. The organization is now the largest recreational diver certification agency in the world. PADI instructors were issued a card and a number. Matthies is instructor 79. There are no active instructors in the world with a lower number, making Matthies either the No. 1 instructor or the oldest one in the world. He said he likes the first sentiment better.
Among other accomplishments is having the commercial diving school in Brainerd. Matthies said there are eight diving schools in the United States and only three of the eight offer Canadian Commercial Diver Certification, which is honored worldwide. The Canadian certification is accepted by the organization governing the universal diving regulations for the oil industry.
“I’m very proud of this,” Matthies said.
The Minnesota Commercial Diver Training Center Matthies founded in Brainerd is one of the three offering that certification, giving its students the ability to work across the globe. Matthies’ son, Todd, now is president of the Minnesota School of Diving.
After all these years, Matthies said he has accumulated thousands of hours underwater. And now his name will be recognized as the first to be honored for those hours contributing to diving, which have rippled across the Great Lakes region.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.