Matthew Holden grew up during the Great Depression on his parent's farm. His father was a cash-renter in Mississippi's cotton growing region. In 1944 Holden's father moved the family to Chicago, where Matthew excelled in school, which led to him attending the University of Chicago. He later transferred to Roosevelt College, and attended graduate school at Northwestern University until he was drafted into the Army in 1956. Holden served in post-war South Korea, assigned to 49th Field Artillery Battalion's personnel office.