Finlay L. Matheson, avid outdoorsman, animal lover and member of one of Miami’s pioneering families, died of natural causes at his South Miami home. He was 97.
He passed peacefully on Thursday, said his oldest son, Finlay B. Matheson.
Each generation of Mathesons shared a spirit of generosity, philanthropy and service to Miami-Dade County.
Finlay L.’s grandfather, W.J. Matheson, was an early Coconut Grove pioneer and owned the majority of land on Key Biscayne. He donated the property for Matheson Hammock Park. Finlay L.’s father, Hugh M. Matheson, donated land for Crandon Park on Key Biscayne.
While his brother, Hardy, served as Dade County commissioner in the 1960s and ’70s, Finlay L. had an active presence in Miami but remained relatively out of the spotlight. Like their father, Matheson loved to sail. He was a founding member of the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and served as commodore of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club.
Born in 1916, Matheson inherited an appreciation for the water. At 18 he sailed from Miami to Maine, where he later met his wife, Lucretia “Cree” Brooks. The couple married in 1941 and Matheson, always a Southern gentleman, made sure his wife never opened a car door.
“They were the happiest on the boat,” said Finlay B. Matheson.
The couple had three sons and instilled in them a passion for nature and conservation. Holidays were spent in the water and their house was full of chickens, goats, rhea birds and emus.
One of his exotic birds, an emu named Emu, made headlines when he escaped from Matheson’s home on Sunset Drive in 1989. Police clocked the flightless bird at 35 miles per hour before returning it home.
Matheson never had daughters but went out of his way to welcome daughters-in-law into the family.
“He leaned over my ear and whispered, ‘Now you have to call us mom and dad’,” Lisille Matheson, who married the middle Matheson son Henry, said of her wedding day. “And I did.”
Lisille, who grew up playing in Matheson Hammock, never thought she would become part of the conservationist family.
“My husband will never tell you this but they really made a big difference in the county,” she said.
Matheson’s work spanned beyond Miami-Dade. He and his wife lived in Maine half the year and, in 1984, he founded the Acadia Animal Park, an interactive petting zoo and a wild animal rescue center in Trenton on the state’s coast.
About a year and a half ago, Matheson suffered a fall. Although it took a physical toll on him, he remained mentally sharp reading two to three books a week, his eldest son said. Matheson never lost his sense of humor.
Even when dealing with pain, he made people smile in the hospital, recalled his son Finlay B.
“They asked him who his doctor was and he told them, ‘My doctor is dead.’ Then they asked him who his doctor had been and he said, ‘Dr. Kevorkian and I’d really like to see him’.”
Loved ones will remember his wonderful laugh, quick wit and his signature bowtie, family members said.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy as a commanding officer of a patrol boat in the Aleutian Islands and in Key West.
He is survived by his three sons, Finlay B., J. Henry and Michael M., their wives Joanie, Lisille and Ann, five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and Emu, his faithful pet.
Services will be held Thursday at the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, 2540 S. Bayshore Dr., Coconut Grove at 5 p.m.