By Maggie Grainger | Photography by Lucas Huey
If there’s one guy who knows you can’t take anything in life for
granted, it’s iconic real estate businessman Duncan Matteson. The
prominent Bay Area figure has looked death in the eye on more than
one occasion, the first of which when he was less than a year old.
When his mother took him to the doctor to treat an ear infection,
it seemed simple enough; she couldn’t imagine the frightening
turn it would take. When the doctor went in to correct Matteson’s
ear, he accidentally punctured a hole so deep in his right jugular
vein that Matteson bled for three straight days. “On the third
night, they told my parents they could go home and come and get
my body in the morning,” he remembers. Mysteriously, during the
night he stopped bleeding and his parents were shocked to find
him alive in the morning.
While his ear remained damaged until his early 20s, it served as
a reminder to Matteson that he was meant to live his life to the
fullest and help others in the process. It’s a motto he’s remained
loyal to throughout his career, which began when he was pounding
the pavement as a stockbroker before making the move to real
estate in 1964. He founded Matteson Investment Corporation in
1978, and since then, has never looked back. In fact, he’s made it
a family affair, hiring his wife, Shirley, in 1980, and his son in the
“Imagine all the lemonade she’s had to make from the lemons
I’ve given her over the years,” he says from his second home in
Pebble Beach, California. An infectious laugh escapes him.
The couple married in Kansas City, Missouri back in 1955, and
they have called the Bay Area home for more than 55 years. He
says the key to a good marriage and a good working relationship
is mutual respect. “It’s important to give everyone respect
because you don’t have to apologize for things, and you get
good things done,” he explains. “Do we agree on everything? No,
but that’s healthy. The key to the whole thing is respect.”
Matteson stands by the idea that there are a lot of things he can
learn from people. “If you’re busy dominating and talking, you’re
not learning,” he shares.
This positive attitude has not only helped him close a deal or
two, but helped him get through another near-death experience
a few years ago when he underwent a complex heart surgery.
“We were about two-thirds of the way in when my heart went
to zero,” he says gravely. “Thank God everyone was there and
they got my heart working again.” When the doctor told him
afterwards what happened, he admits he didn’t know what to
think. “I just said, ‘Oh my God,’” he remembers. “Am I going to
have problems?” His pacemaker now doubles as a heartbeat
monitor and constant reminder of how precious life really is.
And it seems he practices what he preaches. He sits on several
boards throughout the Bay Area for a variety of charities. He’s
also the co-founder of the Housing Industry Foundation and
has raised thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society
and March of Dimes. It’s all about the big picture for Matteson.
“I’ve felt the need to give back for a long time, but I feel even
more importantly in these past few years that I’m not just going
to schedule my next golf game to make myself happy; I’m out
there trying to make others happy. I think that’s why God let me
live: to help others.” A pause catches his words. “If you’re not
helping others, then you’re just wasting space,” he chuckles