Maj. Gen. Matthew A. Zimmerman, Jr.
Chief of Chaplains - U.S. Army
As a child, Matthew Zimmerman lived a life many children would find difficult to enjoy. Born in Rock Hill in 1941, his father was principal of his school and minister of his church. His mother was his first grade teacher. “I used to get zapped three to four times for the same offense,” Zimmerman said. “My parents, however, were my inspiration, especially my dad. They taught me spiritual values and the importance of building good relationships.” Eventually, Zimmerman graduated as valedictorian from Sims High School in Union County. He skipped grades and entered Benedict College at age 16, graduating from Benedict with a degree in chemistry and with plans to go to medical school. “At the time I graduated from college, Duke University was offering fellowships to encourage black students to attend their university,” Zimmerman recalls. “I decided to attend Duke and then to go to medical school. Once I started studying at the seminary, though, I decided I wanted to be ordained as a minister.” Zimmerman became the first African-American student to graduate with a master of divinity degree from Duke University. He was ordained by the National Baptist Convention, Inc., USA and began serving as a campus pastor at universities and colleges throughout the country. Later, he received a master of science degree in guidance and counseling from Long Island University in New York. In 1967, he entered into military service and was commissioned captain by direct appointment. Shortly after becoming a chaplain, Zimmerman served in Vietnam, where he spent many hours helping Vietnamese orphanages collect clothing and other basic supplies. He also served in Panama, Grenada and in the Desert Storm campaign. On April 13, 1989, President Bush nominated Zimmerman for promotion to brigadier general. Following confirmation by the United States Senate, he was appointed deputy chief of chaplains of the United States Army. The following year, he was promoted to major general and appointed chief of chaplains, the first African-American to hold this position. As the chief of chaplains of the US Army, he oversees 2,800 active duty Reserve and National Guard chaplains and 2,800 chaplain assistants stationed with troops worldwide. “In the Army there are 92 different denominations represented on active duty by chaplains,” Zimmerman said. “We have 39 female chaplains, including a female rabbi. All of our chaplains have to minister to people of all persuasions, but they don’t have to perform a specific event, such as a wedding or other sacraments. However, they are responsible for finding religious personnel to perform specific ceremonies.” Zimmerman credits his family and years of college ministry in preparing him for working with people of different background. “It is important for students to realize that there are many different cultures. They need to learn to accept people as individuals,” Zimmerman says. Maj. Gen. Matthew A. Zimmerman, Jr. has received numerous decorations for his service to the military and many civilian honors including a doctor of humane letters degree from Benedict College and the Distinguished Alumni Award from Duke University Divinity School. In 1990, he was the recipient of the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Meritorious Service Award.