Mattimore wonders if his particular empathy for children is rooted in his own childhood experience, growing up in a big Catholic family in Buffalo, N.Y. He wasn't abused, he said, but he often felt lonely. His parents weren't demonstrative and were spread thin among five kids.

Being a real grandfather, or a father for that matter, is a role he never envisioned for himself as a young man. At the age of 18, he had what he called a "mystical experience" while sitting in a pew in Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral and answered "the call" by entering the Junior Seminary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the early 1950s. Mattimore spent years in the priesthood, serving a primarily poor and minority population in St. Petersburg, Fla., and for six years doing missionary work in Japan.

But he always wrestled with powerful desires to have a family — to not just be a "father" but also a dad.

"It was a case of either having a surreptitious relationship with a woman on the side and still being a priest or saying, 'You know what? It's better that I face this part of who I am.' "

He eventually left the priesthood, drove west to California, a naive young man with $1,000 in his wallet. He fell in love with Lillian, a psychology student he met in a group for former priests making "the transition," settled in Sonoma County and dove into family life. When his daughter was born, he said, it was like "a miracle."

After years in a long succession of social service positions, including managing the Area Agency on Aging in the North Bay and for 12 years running the Fairfield Senior Center, he finds his new retirement role both exhausting and exhilarating.

"I think it's wonderful when kids and older people can work directly on something. We feed off each other," he says. "I love their enthusiasm and their energy and their off-the-wallness. They learn from me, and I learn from them."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ or 521-5204.