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Matt Rolinger was the picture of success -- and a meth addict. His family speaks out
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Matt Rolinger was the picture of success -- and a meth addict. His family speaks out

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WATERLOO — Matthew Rolinger bought the house his aunt and uncle used to live in, a beautiful old home along Prospect Boulevard that he decorated lavishly, with extensive, well-tended gardens on the large corner lot. His plan, he always told his siblings, was to have a family someday, to fill the house not just with treasures found on his world travels, but with love.

That someday would never come.

Matthew died on June 8 at age 47, his obituary noting that he “courageously battled an addiction to methamphetamine which ultimately took his life.”

It was something the family made a conscious decision not to hide after his death, they said.

“While fighting his demons in therapy, treatment and spiritual guidance, he continued to seek ways to be a friend, brother, silly uncle, volunteer and creator in writing, music and interior design,” the obituary reads.

A Waterloo native and Cedar Falls High School graduate, Matthew held a master’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa.

He was the director of the Allen Foundation for 16 years, and was named a Courier 20 Under 40 winner in 2004. He was active as a volunteer in more organizations than even his three siblings realized — they didn’t find out he was a part of a cemetery board, for example, until they began planning his funeral.

He was all of those things. And he was also addicted to methamphetamine.

His three older siblings, Mark Rolinger, Cami Smalley and Susan Rolinger, told The Courier they hoped presenting a full picture of who their brother was may help others struggling with an addiction in their own families to not feel alone or ashamed.

“Part of our choice to be open is because we know that shame and embarrassment are strong motivators for keeping some people quiet,” said Cami.

The Rolinger family made a proud mark on the Cedar Valley. Matthew’s grandfather, Lou Rolinger, started Rolinger’s Restaurant in downtown Waterloo in 1937. It was later owned and operated by Matthew’s parents Russ and Jean. Matthew’s oldest brother Mark is a Cedar Falls attorney. His uncle is former Waterloo Mayor Tim Hurley.

“There are some people that would say that Matthew was a stain on our family’s reputation,” Cami said. “That’s not how we see it at all.”

‘He proved us all wrong’

Susan, five years Matthew’s senior, was closest in age and in other ways with her brother. She was the one who first laid her head on her mother’s growing abdomen, feeling Matthew’s kicks from the womb. She found out before her siblings that they’d add a brother. She let Matthew, who always dressed in nice clothing and “clickety” dress shoes, tag along with her and her friends.

Matthew struggled with anxiety even as a child, making up his own word for it: “sick-cited,” or “so excited that you feel sick,” Susan said. While the other siblings pursued sports, Matthew didn’t, instead zeroing in on a creative and empathetic personality. He was also the family’s comic relief, perfectly imitating relatives’ manner of walking or a teacher’s signature turn of phrase.

“He picked up on nuances that some of us don’t seem to pick up on,” Mark said. “He made us laugh.”

That emotional intelligence translated in later years to gift-giving sentimentality, such as the year Matthew combined old Rolinger’s Restaurant and family recipes into spiral-bound books for his brother and sisters. Last year, when getting one of his late father’s camel-haired coats refitted for himself, Matthew took the remnants and made it into a pouch and scarves for family Christmas gifts.

“My aunt Camille loves lilacs, so whenever the lilacs are in bloom, Matthew cuts lilacs and takes them to up our aunt,” Susan said. “He just notices things.”

After he graduated from the UNI in 1997, Matthew took what was supposed to be a temporary job fundraising at Allen College and raised “two-and-a-half times the amount of money that was their goal in a third of the amount of time,” Susan said. He was hired after that.

It kicked off a career his family — avid “Days of Our Lives” viewers for years — told Matthew was only possible on television.

“We used to joke with Matthew, ‘Life is not “Days of Our Lives.” You don’t walk around and go to parties and socialize at the hospital,’” Cami said. “The funny thing is, he proved us all wrong.”

His ability to relate cross-generationally — Mark called him an “old soul” — made him exceptionally good at fundraising.

Former foundation co-worker Angie Fuller, who considered Matthew her “work husband” for the 10 years they worked together, said he developed close relationships with potential donors. She remembers one $5 million gift bequeathed to Allen that was a direct result of Matthew building that relationship for years.

“The people that are good at (fundraising) know that it is not about the organization, it is about the individual — helping them use their funds to do what they were looking to do in the community,” Fuller said. “For Matt, that’s how he operated, and that translated to his other volunteer organizations.”

Besides his career in fundraising, he did it pro bono for organizations all over the Cedar Valley, including Main Street Waterloo, Cedar Valley United Way and the Downtown Waterloo Rotary Club. He served on boards from Hartman Reserve Nature Center to the American Red Cross and the Waterloo and Cedar Falls chambers of commerce.

“That’s the one thing people hate to do — ask for money. Matthew was very comfortable with it,” Mark said. “I think the reason was he was working for a mission that he thought was really important.”

His volunteer spirit came from a love of community learned from their father Russ’s deep devotion to Waterloo, which Matthew took to heart, the siblings said.

After he came out as gay in the early 2000s — to Susan first, of course — his sisters thought he would do better in a bigger city where he had more opportunities for his career as well as his social and love life. But Matthew’s resistance to leaving the community he adored — even after it was clear he needed to get away from his friends to kick his drug habit — was his “tragic flaw,” Susan said.

“There’s so much love for Matthew in the community, and he cherished all of that, but he was really longing for a family,” she said. “All of this, and stepping into the dark world of methamphetamine, was part of this path of loneliness that Matthew was on.”

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Jekyll and Hyde

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It was around six years ago that Matthew confided in Susan again: A friend had injected methamphetamine into him for the first time. He asked Susan to keep it quiet from family, assuring his big sister that he only did it socially.

“’I don’t have an addictive personality,’ and, ‘I only do it once a month,’ and, ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got this,’” Susan remembers Matthew telling her.

The revelation came after Matthew’s life had unraveled: He lost his job at the foundation, a long-term relationship ended, and his father and mother both died of dementia.

“After he left Allen, his job was really taking care of his parents in their last years,” Fuller said, noting Matthew’s family “meant everything” to him. “And then when they died, I think he was just a little lost.”

As his meth usage increased and he cycled in and out of programs to help, there was also the relentlessly cheerful optimism of social media, coupled with a pandemic that kept him away from group therapy, that brought him down, the family said.

“He said, ‘I could get rid of a week — I’d be high for three days, and then sleep for two or three days, and that was a week.’ He basically didn’t have to live a week in reality,” Susan said. “(Meth) was definitely an escape he relied on.”

The siblings took note of the paranoid delusions, poor physical health and bizarre and downright mean behavior coming from the brother they began referring to as “Methew” during and after his highs, likening him to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

“(Meth) takes people’s vulnerabilities and makes them their whole understanding of themselves, like they are nothing except those things,” Cami said. “It takes shame and explodes it. It takes anxiety and magnifies it.”

Matthew kept reiterating that he had his meth usage “under control,” that he wasn’t like the “scumbag meth addicts” he kept seeing in group therapy — the ones with no money, no relationships and no way out.

Even after police arrested him, even after the stints in rehab that didn’t take, even after surgery to correct the havoc wreaked on his body by the drug, Matthew still believed the drug didn’t have a hold on him.

“This was a hope of ours: Maybe when Matthew hits rock bottom, then we’ll be able to start building him back,” Cami said.

A few weeks ago, Susan got a card from him in the mail, thanking her for helping him through recent relapses, and assuring her it wouldn’t all be for nothing. Fuller remembers texting and emailing with Matthew in the last few weeks, where it was clear he was in a bad spot, but “was still trying to be positive and have his heart open,” she said.

“He had a vision of a life where there was hope,” Cami said. “He could be in a place where the vision was clear, and he could see a life. And then it would just vanish.”

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‘This was a great person who fell prey to addiction’

Finding Matthew’s body on the floor of his home is an image that plays over and over in Susan’s mind, along with a guilt she can’t shake that maybe she could have prevented it. She was his confidant, the one with a master’s degree in counseling and a specialty in substance abuse and chemical dependency, often driving up from Des Moines when he called.

“Intellectually, I know that I couldn’t have stopped it,” Susan said. But it’s the emotion that worms its way in: “That’s what I’m trying to get rid of, is seeing him on the floor and thinking, ‘I let him die.’”

Matthew succumbed to an addiction drug abuse specialists say is more prevalent than people realize.

“Meth continues to be a problem in Black Hawk and surrounding counties, as well as the state of Iowa,” said Vicki Mueller, prevention supervisor with Pathways Behavioral Services in Waterloo.

Treatment admissions for meth on rise in Iowa

Nearly a quarter — 24% — of those entering treatment at Pathways report meth as their drug of choice, Mueller said, compared to just 7% on opioids, though Mueller notes opioids seem to be talked about more frequently these days.

And despite insurance refusing to pay for detox for meth users, more than a third of those entering Pathways’ detox center are meth users, Mueller said. They also often have longer stays due to the drug’s “changes in brain function that cause cravings unexpectedly, even after months of sobriety,” she said, causing “many” clients on meth to relapse.

Although admissions to U.S. treatment centers for meth use dropped from 68 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 49 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, methamphetamine use disorder — where people report health problems, disability or failure to meet responsibilities — rose significantly between 2016 and 2017, from 684,000 to 964,000. Around 1.6 million people in the U.S. reported using meth in 2017, the last year for which statistics were available.

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“I think young people especially who are curious and just having fun, who think they’re not vulnerable because they feel so in charge of life” are the ones for whom meth is most dangerous, said Cami. “I mean, Matt was successful and he was productive. That drug is just unforgiving.”

Their honesty about what Matthew went through has caused others — both friends and complete strangers — to open up about their own struggles, the siblings say. That’s what they’re hoping to do by sharing his story, along with telling people not to give up on their loved ones.

“This was a great person who fell prey to the perils of drug addiction,” Cami said. “Then you hear, ‘Yes — we think that way too!’”

Matthew’s final act won’t be the drug that took his life, however.

Because of his own background in legacy giving, he had saved enough money to make a “sizable gift” to the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa, Mark said. The family hopes to direct some of that money to substance abuse and addiction programs, but it’s likely most will go to a variety of community organizations — fitting for a man who spread out his time and talents into many facets of his beloved community.

“I think this is going to be a lasting impact on us, too, is continuing to be charitable and volunteering and giving,” Susan said. “Matthew set an example. He lived charitably.”

Matthew “probably would not have been happy about us talking about his meth use,” Cami said. But her little brother also thought he was in control of it up until the day it took his life. That’s the warning the Rolingers want to impart.

“It’s easy to remember the good part of Matthew,” Cami said. “What will be hard is knowing that Waterloo and other places in the country are still vulnerable, and there are a lot of families suffering.”

“Most people don’t have to go very far in their lives to find someone lost to addiction, and it has been surprising to me how many people have been complimentary,” Mark said. “But we don’t want to make Matthew out to be nothing other than an addict. He was more than that.”

Funeral services for Matthew are set for Monday at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Waterloo, where he also gave his time.

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Reporter covering Waterloo, Black Hawk Co. and politics

UNI political communications/journalism grad. Alum of The Calumet (MCC), The Northern Iowan (UNI), Fergus Falls (Minn.) Daily Journal and KWWL. 4-time award-winner while at The Courier. Interested in exposing wrongdoing and holding power to account.

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