By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
A 13-year-old boy with autism keeps in touch via e-mail with an unlikely buddy: Gov. Bush.
ZEPHYRHILLS - If eighth-grader Matt Ross is late with an assignment, his teacher knows what to ask.
"Have you told the governor you didn't finish it?"' said Alison Sibley, Matt's language arts teacher at Stewart Middle School.
Fact is, the governor knows how Matt is doing in school.
"We e-mail all the time," Matt said. "He's my friend."
Matt Ross, a typically shy 13-year-old who graduated Wednesday from eighth grade, is 6 feet 1 and still growing into his size 14 shoes. He's also learning how to deal with autism, a neurological, developmental disability that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.
And Matt happens to have a close relationship with Jeb Bush.
They have had lunch in Tallahassee. They have met for chats when the governor was in town. Bush helped Matt get a tour of the White House. They've even played golf together.
"I thought it was going to be nine holes," said Matt. "We played 18 holes. I beat him." (Matt's mother, Susan Ross, says her son tied the governor.)
Most of the time, though, Matt and the governor are e-mail buddies. Since they met in 2002, the two have exchanged dozens, perhaps hundreds, of e-mails on matters big and small.
April 13, 2003
From Matt: when i win the masters, do you think they will let me have a blue jacket? i do not like green.
From Jeb: you will have to wear a green jacket.
They met in 2002 at a political rally at the Land O'Lakes Flapjack Festival when Bush was running for re-election. In retrospect, Matt was dressed all wrong.
"He had on all these political things, mostly McBride (Bush's Democratic opponent, Bill McBride) stuff," Susan Ross recalled. Despite a large crowd, Matt was able to shake hands with the governor.
"I told him about my life, and he seemed really interested," Matt said. "He told me I could send him an e-mail."
Matt did send an e-mail. He and his mother were surprised to get a quick response. Then another e-mail and another response. Now, Matt keeps Bush posted on matters of importance in his life - making honor roll, going fishing, his golf game. And he inquires about important matters in the governor's life.
March 21, 2003
From Matt: why do people protest and burn things down? i want to be free and i don't want to be bombed on a plane or in a store. what is wrong with these people?
From Jeb: People protest because they live in a free country. There aren't many doing so but they have the right to and that right is partially why we are attacking Saddam Hussein. I appreciate your support of the troops. I believe the war will be over soon.
Sibley, Matt's language arts teacher, says the governor has been a friend and mentor to Matt.
"I think the governor has been very sweet about it," she said. "I think it also gives the governor some idea of what it's like to be a (special education) student in Florida."
The governor likes to be accessible and routinely gives out his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org He receives roughly 250 to 300 e-mails each day and tries to respond to all of them.
The governor also has mentored a Tallahassee student for years.
But the relationship with Matt appears to be unusual in its durability and frequency.
"Matt is a fine young man," the governor wrote in an email Wednesday. "I have played golf with him and see him regularly when I'm in the Tampa Bay area."
When the two get together, it's usually one-on-one, along with Bush's usual security entourage. Matt's mother finds other things to do so the two of them can have "private time to talk about things."
They often talk golf. Matt is an avid golfer and has excelled in Special Olympics tournaments. In 2001, he and his mother battled the Greater Tampa Junior Golf Association, which would not allow him to play because he could not keep his own score without assistance.
Matt's mother and teachers think his relationship with the governor has done wonders for his confidence. Many people with autism are withdrawn or have difficulty relating to others.
"He used to be very shy," Susan Ross said. "He's not as bad as he used to be. Jeb tells him "You've got to look up and look people in the eye.' And he does it."
During an awards assembly Wednesday, Matt received several awards.
One, the ChairScholar award to provide a college education for special education children, was presented by Education Commissioner John Winn. Matt appeared to be as comfortable and happy as any teen could while having his poetry read aloud in front of classmates.
Matt also gave a plaque to Winn. He asked the commissioner to say hello to the governor.
Said Matt, "Tell him I'll see him sometime."
April 30, 2005
From Matt: I hope the budget gets passed soon because you look tired again.
From Jeb: I am fine and hope you are as well.