Bill Matthies is like a fish as he loves the water. As a child he learned to swim at an early age. As a professional diver for 53 years, he has spent thousands of hours exploring under the sea, lakes, rivers, mining pits, and even the Brainerd sewage system.
His explorations have created many stories of adventures and the discovery of many artifacts, shipwrecks and even junk.
He also nearly drowned during a dive, but a diving partner pulled him out of the water and administered CPR. Today, he’s alive to talk about two near-death experiences and how much more he appreciates life.
Born and raised in Albert Lea, Bill said that as a kid the only thing he could do better than his friends was swim.
“I could hold my breath longer and swim farther than anyone,” he recalled, “but there was no swim team in our school.” He did become a Red Cross water safety instructor and was a lifeguard during his college years at Mankato State. Before enrolling in college, Bill enlisted in the U.S. Army for two years, where he became the “all armed forces” 3-meter diving champion.
“I spent as much time in the water as I could, and this time was not spent in vain because it lead to a career in diving for me,” Bill added, whose certifications include diving instructor and commercial diver.
The first time Bill tried scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving was in a swimming pool in Mankato where a friend invited him to try it. He’s been making bubbles and waves ever since.
He married his high school sweetheart, Evelyn Jensen, whom he started to date in the ninth-grade. They both obtained their teaching degrees and accepted teaching positions with the Brainerd School District in 1959. (Evelyn Matthies, a retired art teacher, who now has two art galleries in Brainerd, was featured in the November edition of the Senior Perspective.)
Married for 56 years, both enjoyed the sport, and Bill looked forward to exploring the 624 lakes that are in a 50-mile radius of Brainerd.
But with no diving supply store in the lakes country, he had to go to Minneapolis to fill his air tanks or to get other supplies which was inconvenient and expensive. “So Evelyn and I decided to open a diving supply business by buying an air compressor and renting a small 10’ x 12’ building,” Bill said. The business was called the Brainerd Skin Diving Supply Company that was later changed to the Minnesota School of Diving and relocated to a 27,000-square-foot building in Brainerd.
Today, the retired math teacher is not retired from his diving business, and at the age of 76, still goes to the store every day.
Four years ago, Bill decided to write a book, One Earth, Two Worlds. The over 500-page book includes his many diving experiences which he shared on a weekly 15-minute radio program that aired on a Little Falls radio station from 1998 to 2000.
He dedicated the book to Evelyn for her understanding when Bill was diving on many of their wedding anniversaries and to his three children for not being able to celebrate some of their birthdays because of his love for the sport.
As he stood in the middle of his store, he praised his wife. “I would never have been able to do all this if it wasn’t for her love and support,” he stated. “All that I’ve done would never have been possible without her.”
The couple has raised three children – son James and wife Melissa have three children and live in Mankato; daughter Jane and husband Keith and their son make their home in Alaska; son Todd and Darlene and their daughter live in Brainerd. They have one great-grandson. Todd is president and co-owner of the business and every member of the family are scuba divers.
When Bill first opened his supply business he began receiving requests to teach diving. At the time, an instructor did not have to be certified as there was no certifying agency, and the person learning to dive did not know if the instructor was actually qualified to teach the sport. Bill was a founding member of PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) that was organized in 1966. Today, he is the oldest active PADI instructor in the world, with card number 79. The certification never has to be renewed.
After becoming certified, a diver can advance to various level including rescue diver, a level needed in order to become a divemaster, and a professional recreational diver, who can be hired to conduct diving trips and assist instructors in diving classes. Bill attained the level of commercial diver who can do underwater welding, demolition and other industrial work.
Flipping through the pages of his book, Bill said that his favorite place to dive is Truk, Lagoon, now known as Chuuk Lagoon, located southeast of Guam in the South Pacific. It was an area that the Japanese occupied during World War II. In 1944 the U.S. captured an island near Truk which made it easier to attack the Japanese in a three-day assault referred to as Operation Hailstorm. Sixty-nine Japanese warships were sunk in the attack, and 300 planes were shot down.
“As a result, this lagoon is one of the most interesting dive sites in the entire world,” said Bill, who made his first dive there in 1991. He has returned there several times along with family members, friends and diving students. Hundreds of saki bottles were found on some of the Japanese ships.
In his book, Bill states that Truk Lagoon is like a time capsule of World War II, and it will not be there forever.
“The ship and plane wrecks are deteriorating fast and each year a little more of it is reclaimed by the ocean and its inhabitants. I’m not sure what our next generation of divers will see. I feel fortunate that I got to see what I did.”
He has also dived in Denmark while researching his and Evelyn’s Danish ancestry, the English Channel while Evelyn was leading an art tour of Brainerd Community College students where she was an art instructor, Palau, Mexico, and Honduras.
In Minnesota, Bill enjoys diving in 27 mine pits of the Cuyuna Iron Range near Crosby and Ironton that are accessible to divers. His first dive in the 1960s was to recover a car. During the early years of his diving career, area sheriff’s departments would call him in aiding the recovery of cars, various stolen items and victims of drowning. These law enforcement agencies now have their own search and rescue teams.
“The clarity of the water in the mining pits, which over the years have filled up with ground water, is from 30 to 50 feet,” Bill explained, “and in other lakes it’s only about 10 feet.”
He added that it’s another world in the abandoned pits, as fish live among the trees.
“There are hundreds of fish living in the underwater forests, and there are no weeds as seen in many lakes. It’s very different in comparison to diving in lakes.”
Over 40 years ago, Bill was called to recover an outboard motor in Fishtrap Lake south of Motley.
During his search he was distracted by a large round object with two holes which crayfish had made as a home.
“When I picked it up, I discovered it was a human skull,” he recalled. “I continued digging in the sand and found a thick leg bone from a large animal. It was too small to be a deer, cow or horse. It was obvious I was in the center of an animal graveyard. I continued to probe through the sand and uncovered a large skull that appeared to be from a buffalo.”
The outboard motor was found and Bill also brought the bones to the surface. He contacted an archaeologist from the Minnesota Historical Society who came to Brainerd to examine the bones. He determined they were from a species of buffalo that had been extinct for 10,000 to 12,000 years.  He also said that the human skull was over 100 years old.
Those bones and some of the artifacts found during dives are on display at the store. The artifacts include logging tools, Indian artifacts, old fishing reels, old outboard motors and other fishing equipment, anchors, slot machines with no money and a variety of old bottles. One such bottle was made by the Enterprise Bottling Company in Brainerd. The bottle was made when carbonation was introduced in soda. A metal gasket was inside the bottle that was used to keep the corks from blowing off the top of the bottle.
Bill has also explored many shipwrecks in Lake Superior and riverboats in the Mississippi River.
When he looks back at his diving career, Bill said he is amazed at the number of airplanes that have gone down in Minnesota lakes. Shortly after opening his business, Bill heard a story about a military L-19 plane, commonly known as a “Bird Dog,” going down in Green Lake near Spicer in 1958 on a foggy night. The pilot was Captain Richard Carey, who grew up in Willmar. His body was found near shore two weeks after the crash. Four years later, Bill was received a call from the Civil Air Patrol, asking if he would help in trying to find the downed plane. They dived for over two days when they heard that the plane had already been found and taken from the lake. The search ended.
“For over 40 years, I believed the plane was not there,” Bill remembered, “but then heard that two men who were using an underwater camera while fishing on Green Lake (July 2004), found the plane that was on the opposite side of the lake from where the body was found.” Bill and son, Todd, returned to Green Lake and dived down to the plane that was in almost perfect condition at a depth of 39 feet.
“The first thing I saw as I approached the plane was the white star insignia on a blue circular background with red stripes on both sides,” Bill explained. “It was the same World War II insignia I used to put on my drawing of planes when I was a kid.”
Captain Carey was survived by his wife and seven children. The youngest child, Colleen, was eight months old when her father’s plane went down. She had a strong desire to see and touch the plane so she took diving lessons. Forty-five years after the crash, Colleen Carey Butler, a diving friend, and Todd, who videotaped the underwater event, dived down to the plane where she checked and touched every part of the plane. In 2005, the plane was brought to the surface.
During his career, Bill has been called over 100 times to do a search of someone who has drowned. He has recovered 99 bodies which he, after a lot of thought, decided to include in his book.
Bill emphasized that when a family loses a loved one to drowning, they have a mental image of what drowning must be like based on their own fears of drowning. Many families he has spoken to, either before or after the body is recovered, express that “it must have been terrible.”
But Bill tries to reassure them that it can be a very peaceful death, comparing it to his own near-drowning when his diving partner administered CPR on him.
Having spent so much of his life under water, Bill explained in his book, “When I enter this world [under water], I immediately feel peacefulness and tranquility. There are no hostilities and no problems. Any problems I may have had on the surface stay on the surface. There is an exhilarating feeling of weightlessness. There is almost no gravity under water . . . I love the feeling of the water around me; it’s not a scary feeling but it’s a comforting feeling similar to an embrace.”
Speaking of his own near-drowning mishap, he added, “What I went through is exactly what people who drown go through. First, they pass out. The drowning comes later. If there is any panic, it is for a very short time, and then the person just goes to sleep and they slowly sink to the bottom.
Out of the 99 drowning victims he has found, Bill said that 97 of them looked like they were sleeping and very peaceful.
“Something else people don’t think about is that there is no suffering or pain in this kind of death,” he said reassuringly. “All of us were enveloped by water in our mother’s womb when our lives began. It seems almost natural that we should be cradled by water when our life ends.”
Bill has also dived many times in the winter below the ice-covered lakes and rivers. Rather than wearing wet suits, divers wear dry suits that are much warmer.
“In the winter, the water is the clearest it will ever be,” Bill said. “Rather than 5 to 30 feet of support particles, there is no wind to stir things up, and the weeds appear to be dead and fall down, which contributes to the clear water.”
During the winter, Bill has recovered cars, trucks, snowmobiles and even large reels of electrical cable recovered through 4 feet of ice on Lake of the Woods.
As a commercial diver, Bill has crawled into pipes below dams, cleaned out culverts, dived into city water wells, old mine shafts, and has dived in sloughs and swamps.
“After deciding that I had dived in the worst possible places, in June 1989 I received a call to dive into a receiving tank of Brainerd’s city sewage system,” Bill laughed. “There was a problem in the one of receiving tanks, and the only solution was to send a diver down into the pit.”
Before deciding to accept the job, Bill thought about one of his favorite TV shows, Sea Hunt, back in the early 1960s.
“Lloyd Bridges played the role of a professional diver, Mike Nelson,” Bill said. “I watched probably every one of the 165 episodes, and each week Mike Nelson got into some really sticky situations, but he never made a dive into a place like this!”
He wrote in his book, “As you would expect, the visibility down there [in the sewage pit] was nothing to brag about. Because of the thickness of the atmosphere, movement was very slow. To find the missing parts, I had to lie on the bottom and sweep my arms back and forth to feel for the parts. The job took over an hour.”
Bill said he took around 20 showers that day. “When it was time to go to bed, I had to talk long and hard to convince my wife that it really wasn’t necessary for me to sleep outside that night.”
Today, even though Bill goes to the store each day, he no longer dives as often he did before. His son, Todd, and the staff have taken over the underwater jobs.
In addition to writing his book on diving, Bill has also written a book about his ancestors, and he also kept a journal about all the things that occurred with all of his grandchildren for about 25 years. That book was given to them as a Christmas gift.
“The reason I wrote the daily journal was because of a dive I made where I thought I would not survive, and one of my thoughts was that I would never see my grandkids, and they would never know me,” Bill shared.
That incident occurred when he was working in a large 5-foot wide cement culvert below a dam at a mining company near Biwabik, Minn., in 1975. The culvert was blocked by a large piece of metal that needed to be removed. As he was working on the project, the strong current pulled one of his fins around an edge and prevented him from moving. In an attempt to free himself, the other fin got caught, and he could not kick himself free. He was pulled further into the culvert.
“Because of my exertion to get free, I had used just about all of my remaining air,” he recalled. “Struggling was useless, and it was getting harder to breathe . . . There is no way I could ever explain the feeling I had when I knew I was going to die.”
Bill began to think about his family, that he would never see his grandchildren and they would never know him.
“I thought of my wife marrying someone else, and that man would be called grandpa, not me, and that wasn’t fair,” he wrote in his book.
He believes an act God set him free when suddenly one of his fins was sucked right off his foot by the current followed by the second fin.  He was able to pull his self along the culvert and up the face of the dam to the surface where he gasped for air.
“It took several years before I could talk about the near drowning without getting emotional,” he added. “I will never forget the feeling I had when I knew I was going to die.”
The incident brought some positive changes to Bill’s life – keeping a journal for his grandchildren and researching his ancestry, as he never knew his grandfather. He and Evelyn went to Prussia, now a part of Poland, to find as much information as they could.
Bill feels very fortunate and appreciates the life he has been given. “I have learned to really appreciate my family and cherish the time I spend with them,” he concluded, “and also learned to think through every job I did under water and used better judgment.”