After the Krewe of Argus rolls in Metairie on Fat Tuesday, Johnny Matesich can finally add “Mardi Gras king” to his résumé.
He may have a little trouble finding a space to write it, however.
Matesich, 77, already has an impressive list of life experiences he attributes to healthy living and seizing opportunities with passion and vigor.
“I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none,” Matesich said, perhaps a bit modestly for a man who has run 40 marathons — one from the base camp of Mount Everest — and who holds 55 national titles in ocean surf racing and made the Guinness Book of World Records in 1995 as part of a lifeguard team that paddleboarded across the English Channel in less than seven hours.
Matesich has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, Cerro Toco volcano in Chile and the three highest peaks in Utah. He’ll hit 1 million miles this spring on Delta Airlines alone, and he saves time by naming the places in the world he’d like to see but hasn’t visited: Greenland, Iceland, Malta, Sardinia, Tasmania and the Amazon basin.
“My bucket list is down to single digits,” he said with a laugh. “The experiences I’ve gone through in life are amazing. I’m blessed. I’m just blessed.”
Matesich, who reigns this year as King Argus XXXI, has lived in California since he was 4 years old but has “deep, deep roots” in New Orleans.
He was born here in 1937, at what was then called Hotel Dieu, to Croatian immigrants who came to New Orleans to join relatives, many of whom had gone into the restaurant business.
Matesich’s great-uncle owned a shrimp and oyster cannery in Biloxi, Mississippi, and an uncle, Chris Matulich, founded the original Chris’ Steak House that eventually became the Ruth’s Chris chain.
But in 1941, his mother decided she’d had enough of the humidity, and the family moved to San Pedro, California.
There, Matesich grew from a young boy with boundless energy, hurdling fruit boxes in the backyard after seeing footage of Olympic runner Jesse Owens, into a sports-obsessed youth. He played every sport he could find the time for, particularly baseball, tennis and cross-country running.
In the classroom, Matesich was so inspired by his 11th-grade U.S. history teacher that he decided he would go on to do the same, becoming a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1962 to 1998.
“Education is a lifelong process,” he said. “I’d tell that to my kids: It’s a lifelong process, and you have to take advantage of all your opportunities when they present themselves.”
Matesich carried his love of teaching over to athletics, coaching tennis, weightlifting and cross-country running.
In 1957, he became an L.A. County lifeguard, retiring only in 2013. In those five-plus decades, he swam, paddled and rowed his way through dozens of competitions and in places including Loch Ness in Scotland and around Manhattan Island and Key West, Florida.
His most recent athletic obsession is boxing, and he has volunteered as an instructor at Cabrillo Beach for the past 15 years.
“I try to get the most out of my body, the most out of my ability,” he explained. “I try to do the best I can with what God has given me.”
Matesich began coming back to visit family in New Orleans as a young man, but it wasn’t until he was about 40 that he experienced his first Mardi Gras, in 1978. He’s been to about 15 since then, and over the years he became friends with the Cvitanovich family, of Drago’s restaurant fame, a relationship that led to his nomination to reign this year alongside Queen Argus XXXI, Madeline Cvitanovich.
“There’s no place in the world like New Orleans,” he said. “Its music, its people, its spirit, its food, everything that goes with it — there’s nothing like it.”
He added, “I’d live here tomorrow if there was a Pacific Ocean”; he called the ocean and the lifestyle that flows from it “my pacifier.”
But despite a lifestyle that includes only social drinking, no fried foods, no soft drinks, no drugs and days that start at 5:15 every morning, Matesich said he won’t be out of place amid the revelry of a tradition rooted in pre-Lenten indulgence.
He said he was struck by what Mardi Gras means when he was here in December, standing in the Queen’s Room at Brennan’s and looking at photos of past Carnival kings, queens and pages.
“I saw the king with a beard and his long train and said, ‘That’s me 100 years ago,’ ” he said. “I finally got it. Before it was just a big party, a fun time to let it all hang out. But it’s not. It’s deeper than that. It’s a tradition that’s been going on more than 100 years.”
He said he now views Mardi Gras as a play in which every actor plays a part of equal importance.
“Every spectator that comes to New Orleans is a part of this great play, this great tradition that started in the late 1830s,” he said. “And if you take any one of those parts away, there is no Mardi Gras.”
“I’m just perpetuating this great tradition in 2015,” he said. “In 2016, we’ll have a whole new set of actors and a whole new play.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.