Assistant to Mayor, Ron Littlefield, Matt Lea is a busy man and makes no bones about it. One may wonder how he finds the time with his demanding job to be the family man that he is, along with his elaborate hobbies and giving back to his community.
A Chattanooga native; Matt has a deep-rooted sense of who he is and what he wants for his family, leaving a carefully laden path of footprints for his daughter Madison to know and to follow.
Matt’s heritage is as unequivocally important to him as his daughter’s future. The way he sees it they go together.
“My grandmother has a nickname for me; she calls me “LV” after my great-grandfather. He was an ornery old fuss and died when he was 98 years old. Every day that man had to have something to do. My grandmother would say to me, ‘Slow down L.V.’,” Matt recalls.
Being very involved in the genealogy of his family, Matt found that he comes from a long line of frontiersmen and farmers. “I really believe that no matter how far back you go – you’ve got a little bit of something in you from all of your family.”
Matt is an avid gardener. Modestly he says, “It comes naturally to me, I enjoy it and I am not great at it but I do pretty good.” He has an abundant crop this year. His garden is close to a quarter of an acre but he doesn’t sell what he grows.
Some might call Matt “the Gentleman Farmer” as he comes home from work in his three-piece suit and dons his overalls to work in his garden.
Whatever Matt puts his energy into, he is thinking about others, giving his garden’s surplus away to co-workers, to families that he wants to help and to his neighbors.
“I tell them to just come help themselves if they want anything,” Matt says. “People ask me why I don’t sell what I grow. Right now I supply for five families. I get so much pleasure out of just giving it away. Things are so hard for people right now,” Matt insists.
His first thought is in feeding eight-month-old Madison. “We have made all of Madison’s baby food. My wife Sharon is so good about cooking and freezing things. The only baby food we had to buy was fruit – or things that I haven’t grown for lack of time or space,” Matt says.
Sharon says of her husband, “Matt has taken a very special liking to his garden this summer. He is determined to grow every single bit of our new daughter’s food from it. Our neighbors probably think we are trying to supply a local food market! But that is just the way Matt is. He is an over achiever to the highest degree. He has a huge heart and has really gone far and beyond what is required in being a new daddy. This has been a blessing, as Madison has had a healthy array of vegetables, all organically grown!”
Sharon works for the city of Chattanooga. She has a degree in accounting and is one of the purchasing agents. Matt indicates that having many things in common with his wife helps their marriage. They spend time enjoying some of the same hobbies as well as understanding each other’s work. “My whole life, I have loved government. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to work in government and eventually run for office,” he says.
As special assistant to the mayor, Matt’s day-to-day responsibilities include drafting proclamations and correspondence, representing the mayor at various meetings, speaking to community groups and organizations, representing the city and the mayor to foreign visitors and diplomatic missions, organizing meetings, various city events, functions and special projects, such as the proposed police indoor firing range.
As the city’s lobbyist, Matt travels to Nashville with the state legislators to propose and advance quality legislation that is good for the city and state. “This year was really a monumental year for the city of Chattanooga and the fight against gang violence,” Matt says. “Mayor Littlefield and the newly formed Chattanooga Area Gang Task Force proposed a new piece of legislation to add ‘Criminal Street Gang Activity’ to the State’s RICO Act, (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization).”
As the city’s lobbyist, Matt had the professional privilege of lobbying for this legislation and others. “After several months of work with various organizations, other interested stakeholders and our local Chattanooga state delegation, it was passed and became the first substantive gang offense in the history of Tennessee. By adding ‘criminal street gang activity’ to the state RICO Act, this new law will allow gang members to be prosecuted in groups,” Matt explains.
“Also this year, thanks to the members of our state delegation, the city was able to advance and pass two other bills regarding the way our local library boards are comprised and how our local Beer Board deals with alcohol violations within our local bars, clubs, and eating establishments,” he says.
Being a lobbyist, Matt has incorporated that knowledge with his love for birds. One of Matt’s hobbies is bird watching, making birdhouses (one of which went to sister city Wuxi in China) and raising parrots. He is active in bird conservation efforts and protecting bird habitats. Matt visits many organizations and schools with his parrots to promote respect and bring awareness for exotic birds.
He has a small company on the side called Take Flight Chattanooga, making birdhouses, going to craft shows and making presentations. “I think it’s important, if a man is going to have a hobby – he needs to have a few hobbies that he can have with his family and spend time with family,” Matt says.
Sharon had a yellow parrot named Butch when she and Matt got married. Matt then got Casper. They also have Smokey and Kiwi added to their “family”.
“They are our babies – they were here before Madison and probably will be here when Madison has children. Butch is almost 30 years old. I expect Casper to live up into his 40s,” Matt says.
Casper and Kiwi are show birds; both are Indian Ring-necks. Casper won best in show two years ago statewide. Kiwi came in ‘best amateur’. Matt walks around Home Depot, Lowes and Tractor Supply with Casper on his shoulder. If he goes in without his bird, people will ask where he is.
Casper is potty trained. “It takes a lot of work but it can be done. I have trained him not to ‘go’ on my shoulder. A bird has to go every 20 minutes. I have to take him outside to the sidewalk and I say, ‘poop’ and he’ll poop!” Matt laughs.
When the two bird lovers built their home, they built a room just for the parrots. “They have a TV and we have movies that the World Parrots Society puts out and it’s a loop-video that plays all day while we are gone,” Matt says.
“They take baths with us. They have a perch in the shower …a perch in the car - my neighbors get a kick out of them,” Matt chuckles.
Together, Matt and Sharon built a vast gate for the entrance to their back yard. They also worked on Madison’s room together; decorating it, of course, with a bird theme.
Matt made a bird lamp for his daughter’s nursery. To Matt, it isn’t just about building things for a hobby – he has his passions, his efforts and his love tied into these projects in hopes to leave a legacy for his daughter.
When talking about the 1960 model “22” Matt is restoring, he already envisions teaching his daughter how to shoot it, giving her something to treasure, as with other things he has restored.
A priceless treasure of his own is a shiny coalminer’s lamp. “I know restoring an antique like that is normally not the proper thing to do, but since I am not worried about the value of the lamp, I wanted to make sure it was well preserved,” Matt insists.
Matt’s grandfather was the coal miner who owned that lamp. Back in 1934 his grandfather and his great grandfather were working side by side in the coal mines of Soddy Daisy. “A slate rock fell from the ceiling and it completely crushed my great-grandfather. My grandfather was standing two feet from him and barely missed the rock falling on him too. The coal lamp is the one he had that day – the day he left mining.” Matt avers.
“He could have gone back and he could have been killed too; there were a lot of good men killed in those mines. He had the courage to leave and have a better life. If he had been killed, I would have never been born,” Matt notes.
That lamp is a significant piece of Matt’s history. As he traces his roots and learns more about the past, the stories of his ancestors become real to him. He wants to not only document these findings and share them with his daughter, but he also wants to make a mark in his own life for her to be proud of.
Sharon says, “Matt and I waited five years before deciding to start our family. We were both nervous but now that Madison is here; we couldn’t imagine it any other way. He is a far better father than I ever could have imagined,” Sharon says proudly.
“One day he surprised me with a pretty lengthy file attached to an email. I thought, ‘seriously? Another 10-page analog on your family history?’ I opened it up and, to my astonishment; he had documented every little milestone that Madison has had since the day of her birth! It was a very special moment to read through that,” Sharon admits.
Matt puts a lot of effort and time into fatherhood and his home life. He has a lot to keep him busy at work and to keep him busy outside of work. But what pushes him forward is helping others.
Matt’s biggest priority right now is in raising his daughter. “I want to be a good dad. My father Alan Lea, was a very busy man. He was (and still is) an engineer for TVA. He was always there for me helping with homework or attending my functions - no matter how stressed he was. And I want to be there for Madison,” Matt insists.
No stranger to running for office, Matt ran for commissioner when he was in his twenties lacking just three votes. He eventually would like to run for office again and to work in a corporate environment as well. “Maybe open my own business making my small business into one of the nation’s top birdhouse companies making quality birdhouses. Bird watching is now a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States,” he says.
Matt’s future goal is to still be working in government and making a difference, eventually becoming a state representative, senator and possibly governor.
Matt’s every motive seems to be how his actions will affect someone else, to the good.
“I am a man who trusts in the Lord and follows my heart, hoping to make a difference in the world. We are only here for a short time; I really believe we are put on this earth to make a difference in the time we are here. I believe God gives people blessings, characteristics and traits that are necessary to do what He puts them here to do,” Matt says.
He knows that people get frustrated with the government as a whole but his hope is that his own involvement can somehow make a difference toward helping things get better.
“I don’t like how government gets bogged down in a bureaucracy but what I love about it is how it can make someone’s life better,” he says. “What I love about it is what government is in its core form. And that’s serving the people. That’s what I like; I love the fact that it helps people live a better life.”