Gene Mason

Obituary of Gene Lyle Mason

You don't meet many real cowboys anymore, but even among that rare breed, Gene Lyle Mason, PhD, was one of a kind. Born June 20, 1940, in Brownfield, Texas, Dr. Mason hung up his spurs for the last time on July 4th at the notable hour of 4:44 a.m., succumbing to complications of pneumonia and congestive heart failure, at The Washington Home and Community Hospices, in the District of Columbia, where he resided. Dr. Mason graduated from Brownfield High School, received his BA, cum laude, from The University of North Texas, and his MA and PhD from the University of Kansas. He taught political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and at Franconia College, once a small liberal arts college in northern New Hampshire. He subsequently served as Vice President of Development at Bard College and Founder and Executive Director of the Bard College Center in upstate New York, before he became the owner of Mason Farms, at the time the largest thoroughbred breeding farm in the state. He moved to the Boston area, and became Director of Workforce and Entrepreneurial Programs at the Moving Ahead Program of St. Francis House. Dr. Mason wrote and published in a wide variety of areas including the politics of exploitation, social justice, prison reform, addiction and recovery, and nursing home life. His last unfinished project was an autobiographical series entitled, "Growing Up in West Texas," that included stories of his first rodeo and his days in the National Junior Rodeo Association, which he proudly joined in 1953, the year of its inception. Horseman, college professor and administrator, author, candidate for U.S. Congress, horse breeder, alcoholic and cocaine addict, addiction and recovery counselor, prison rights advocate, President of The Washington Home's Resident Council, blogger on issues of politics and health care reform, and multi-time convicted felon, Gene was always instantly recognizable by his signature cowboy boots and hat and his infectious energy to grab life by the horns and take its wild ride. Charming and charismatic both in great measure, he was capable of making each person he met feel they had forged an exceptional bond as easily as he could marshal them to one of his causes. His irreverence for accepted authority often chafed just as noticeably. When asked by doctors in the many hospitalizations that preceded his death about his history of drug use, Dr. Mason would respond with his characteristic twinkle and the soft Texas drawl that never left him, "Ma'am, I've done all of them." Gene Mason was fiercely independent, a life-long social activist, political reformer, and irrepressible liberal. A campus organizer for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, Dr. Mason was standing next to Ted Kennedy in California when news came of Bobby's assassination. Never forgetting the lessons of his civil rights youth, Dr. Mason championed the causes of the poor and down-trodden with great passion and sincerity, giving voices to the voiceless from coal miners to prisoners to addicts and the homeless, and most recently to nursing home residents. His reform agenda often incurred the wrath of establishment politicians of different stripes, but if he believed in anything, Gene Mason believed that reality and status quo should never stand in the way of what might be. An article by Nicholas von Hoffman in The Washington Post in September, 1972, discussed the arrest and conviction for receiving a stolen typewriter that derailed Dr. Mason's congressional bid in Kentucky. It reported how rankled Dr. Mason was that in the district where he sought office, only four of 21 counties had median family incomes of over $4,000, while the "tax dodging horse farms" had "barns paneled in solid walnut, . . ." The article observes that, whether or not the arrest was a set-up, "the police and his political enemies happened on a weapon and used it to railroad him to ruin." In a similar vein, the September 23, 1973, headline of the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest daily newspaper, read "GOVERNOR ASKS FBI [to] PROBE MASON." It reported that New Hampshire's governor at the time, Meldrim Thomson Jr., asked that Dr. Mason, a founder of the New England Prisoners' Association, be investigated by state and federal authorities for "prison agitation." The article quotes Dr. Mason as describing the state's highest executive as a "fascist governor who is promoting regression." Subsequently published, the actual letter that prompted the Governor's criminal referral makes clear and press sources confirmed that the statements attributed to the Franconia professor and prison organizer, who was never one to back down from a fight for a cause, were taken out of context. Dr. Mason's major publications include: The Politics of Exploitation, with Fred Vetter (Random House); 1984 Revisited, with Sam Bowles (Random House); The Senatorial Career of Hugo Black (Dr. Mason's doctoral dissertation published by Black's law clerks on the occasion of his 80th birthday); SOS: Step with Our Suggestions on Recovery from Alcohol and Addictions, with John Wong (Author House); "Reviled, Rejected, but Resilient: Homeless People in Recovery and Life Skills Education," with John Wong (Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy). Though plagued by a number of health issue exacerbated by years of drug and alcohol abuse, Dr. Mason escaped death more times than his family and friends could count, and in the course, impressed every doctor who treated him with his remarkable zest for life. Dr. Mason spent his last two year in The Washington Home with the love of his life, Susan Mason. There, he will never be forgotten for his portrayal of Lash LaRue, and the crack of a bullwhip that scattered residents and nurses in all directions, winning him the talent show; his successful campaign for Resident Council President; and his stories portraying residents, staff, even the volunteer dog, in ways that fostered a sense of dignity, good-will and community. At his core, Dr. Mason was fascinated by people from all walks of life, and stories of his fellow residents and some of his observations on nursing home life are chronicled at In his life, Mr. Mason was lucky enough to enjoy the sustained love and companionship of three amazing women, all of whom survived him: his first wife and the mother of his children, Susan Rea Davis Mason, who he rejoined for the last two years of his life; his second wife, Carol Young; and his companion of 15 years, Dianne Puopolo. He is loved and mourned by his daughter, Mary Hampton Mason; his son, James Price Mason; and his grandson, James Price Mason, Jr., and the many, many close friends he made virtually everywhere he went, particularly the Fleron and Vinskey families. Dr. Mason was predeceased by his parents, Nathan Lyle Mason and Mary Dee Price, and by his brother, Douglas Allen Mason. A memorial service will be held July 19, 2013, at 2:30 p.m., at The Washington Home, 3720 Upton St, NW, Washington, DC 20016. A second service will be held near Bard College in Annandale, N.Y., in the Fall. Fighting for the rights of nursing home residents in his declining years, and the rights of prisoners in his activist years, were missions near and dear to Gene Mason's heart. In lieu of flowers, donations in Dr. Mason's name may be made to benefit resident activities at The Washington Home (attn Mollie Haines),, where his wife Susan still resides, or to the Bard Prison Initiative,, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 12504.
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