What Joseph DeMattos Jr. lacked in stamina during his first decade he’s more than made up for in the intervening years.
Born premature into a deeply Catholic family in Hawaii, DeMattos said he spent most of his early years as a sick child. But he benefitted from the love of his mother, a cleaning lady, and father, a photojournalist and editor.
His parents settled in a rural community 36 miles outside of Honolulu. In addition to DeMattos and his older sister and younger brother, the couple raised two older children through a concept called Hānai, which is a more informal adoption concept than its Western equivalent.
“You take responsibility for another child,” DeMattos explained. “Hānai siblings are recognized in Hawaii.”
Neither parent had gone to college, but DeMattos attended a strong public high school that pushed him to consider his options. After starting at the University of Hawaii, DeMattos’ interest in politics led him away periodically. While back in school in 1990, he was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, a thyroid disorder.
He went back to work, writing for the state attorney general’s office, which allowed him to seek medical treatment. He obtained his college degree in 1994 and then worked for Governor John Waihee. A few years later, he became an account executive for Becker Communications, which counted AARP as a client.
“My company had placed an ad for a position and the next day at our reception desk there was a plate with some incredibly good chocolate chip cookies and Joe’s resume,” says Ruth Ann Becker. DeMattos became highly effective at public relations and “grew in his experience,” Becker says, adding that she immediately confirmed that he had, in fact, baked the cookies himself. “All of his work came from a place in his heart,” she asserts.
When AARP decided to create state offices, DeMattos was lured to work for it in Hawaii as an associate state director. Later, he arrived in Washington, D.C., for a temporary assignment.
“Joe is a great systems thinker,” says Lee White, a retired former regional vice president at AARP. “He’s got an incredible mind for asking questions about how things work and finds creative solutions. His way of seeking out information from obscure sources or sources other people wouldn’t think about endeared him to a lot of people.”
While DeMattos had planned to return to Hawaii, the combination of meeting his future wife, professional opportunities and pursuing a graduate degree kept him in the D.C. area. He married Rebecca Dopkin DeMattos in 2004, and sons Brandon and Hayden followed.
Today, DeMattos counts his family as his biggest blessing. Having his sons, who are now 9 and 11, “takes love to a whole different gear,” and it reshifted his priorities, he says. “I used to be the guy who had two breakfast meetings,” DeMattos says. Now, he eats breakfast with his sons and makes their lunches, and takes them to school.
DeMattos also is a lifelong runner, having completed 15 full marathons. At 56, he “doesn’t feel I have an expiration date professionally.”
If people wonder how he juggles it all, DeMattos points out that he drinks “massive amounts of coffee.” As far as White is concerned, whatever he’s doing is working. “Where he excels more than anything is that he takes people who work for him,” White says, “and they become better than they could have imagined.”
1990 Works as staff writer for State of Hawaii Office of the Attorney General
1992 Becomes communications deputy and executive assistant to Gov. John Waihee
1994 Completes bachelor’s degree at University of Hawaii
1996 Begins as senior account executive at Becker Communications
2000 Joins AARP as associate state director for AARP in Hawaii
2003 Named director of integration, state and national initiatives at AARP in Washington, D.C.
2004 Completes master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University
2009 Becomes president and CEO of Health Facilities Association of Maryland
2014 Starts as state commissioner, Maryland Higher Education Commission