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Greenwich Financier Pays it Forward

Phil Matthews must be a big fan of the film "Pay It Forward." The premise of that movie — doing good deeds and asking the recipients to do the same — has governed Matthews' life as well as the Northern Star Foundation, which he set up in 1998 to provide college scholarships to young people and ex-military personnel.

"I'm just a Midwestern kid who got lucky on Wall Street," says Matthews. But his good fortune, and his decision to share it with others, has led to partial scholarships for nearly 70 recipients. "I call them pay it forward merit grants," he says. "Don't pay me back, do something good for three other people. Believe it or not, in 750 years you would cover the whole world."

Matthews, a Greenwich resident for a quarter century, grew up in Michigan and studied at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. Turning Horace Greeley's dictum around, as a young man he went East and found his fortune in the financial world. Unlike many who might have socked away the fortune, Matthews decided to share it with those whom he felt would benefit from a helping hand in their educational expenses.

Potential recipients come by reference from mutual acquaintances, and some years Matthews has awarded only one or two. "I don't want to get inundated," he says. Among those who have received a financial boost are a local opera singer who used her grant to study at Julliard, as well as a dozen and a half military men and women who wished to pursue higher education after their national service was done.

Matthews plans to continue giving out a few scholarships every year while rebuilding the fund's principal from the hit it took during the financial crisis. All the while, he will keep espousing the view of Albert Einstein. "When someone asked him what was the most powerful thing in the world he replied, 'compound interest,'" says Matthews.

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