Arthur K Mason 1925-2019

IMG_4084

Arthur Mason in his Bethesda home, circa 1975.

Arthur K Mason, Washington attorney, turned-wood collector, and lately a memoirist, died at home at the age of 93. He was among the youngest 10% of those who served in World War II, and one of less than 3% of WWII veterans who survived to 2019. Arthur’s health turned sharply worse around the holidays, and he was airlifted off Upper Captiva Island, Florida on New Year’s Eve day. He then flew home to GW hospital, where his hospital room was easy to find by the laughter that spilled out. Once back home, Arthur or Bunky as he was known in his family, continued to regale family and friends, in- and out-of-towners alike, with stories.

Arthur’s eclectic law practice ranged from securing the landing rights for the Concorde to representing the flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that was Cinerama, to a wide range of large business deals, along with a sprinkling of wills, divorces and real estate. Arthur remarked that he often felt that his job was more personal than legal. Arthur was a champion at talking with people about matters large and small. He was able to segue from “How is Sally?” to sports before getting to the business at hand, an approach that made clients, many of whom became friends, more comfortable with hard issues. He always had an eye toward de-escalating matters and ending the need for attorney intervention. Another key feature of Arthur’s approach to law stemmed from advice that Arthur received from the leading movie producer and MGM director Louis B Mayer, “Young man, I can find lots of lawyers who can tell me what I can’t do, what I want is a lawyer who tells me how I can do it.”  To Arthur, this “was a very important lesson and I have always focused on the “how”, not the “can’t” ever since.”

One of the cases that stayed with Arthur was an aristocratic woman “Veronica” whose son “Jeffrey” was born to her as an unmarried teenager and who now needed a passport to take a coming-of-age tour of Europe. Veronica was quietly panicked because Jeffrey believed that she was his aunt who had adopted him as a baby. The elegant woman was eager to continue this fiction indefinitely. Arthur approached a rather high official at the Passport Office and after a long discussion of the background, “Alan” was eager to help. Arthur and Alan decided on an approach whereby Alan personally received Jeffrey’s passport application. Instead of asking Jeffrey for a birth certificate, Alan used the birth certificate listing Veronica as the mother which had been previously provided by Arthur. Alan handed Jeffrey his passport, and a devoted mother’s secret was safe.

Just over two years ago, Arthur’s wife Jane embarked on a trip while Arthur stayed behind on Upper Captiva Island. Eager to distract him and keep him from feeling lonely without Jane, a friend of Arthur’s challenged Arthur to write a story a day about his life. This suggestion sparked an outflow of writing, not quite at the instructed pace but with a steadiness that has resulted in 90 chapters, the final three of which were dictated just a week before he died. In the words of his niece, Arthur’s method was to write and then to edit “with the precision of a musician with a tuning fork.” Arthur’s chapter on the USS Indianapolis tragedy was recently published in two parts (on the sinking and the court martial) in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History Blog. Arthur’s family will soon publish the memoir.

IMG_0689

Arthur Mason at Greylock, circa 1935.

Arthur Kent Mason was born July 20, 1925 to George Zachary Mason, a Yale-educated forester and founder of Camp Greylock, a camp for boys in Beckett, Massachusetts; and the former Esther Kent, a public-school teacher. Arthur was raised among a large extended Jewish family on the West side of New York City. Summers were always spent at Greylock with his parents, friends, and classmates. He attended Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City and entered Harvard College at age 16. Happy to get out of Harvard Yard and eager to fight for the “great cause” (aka WWII), he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. He became an ensign and wound up as the youngest officer on The Spangler, “an obscure but serviceable warship.” Arthur never saw combat, which he viewed as lucky given that the ship “had World War I torpedoes, which we never fired, and probably would not have worked if we had.” Arthur served in the South Pacific until May of 1946.

 

IMG_5320

Handsome Arthur in his naval uniform, circa 1943.

On leave in 1945, Arthur went to Boston and told Harvard that he anticipated completing his service the following year and wanted to arrange to come back and complete his degree. In response, Harvard gave him credits for Naval Science and offered him a diploma. Armed with his BA, Arthur mailed in an application to Harvard Law School from Hong Kong. He received a letter at sea, read that he was accepted, and promptly stuffed the letter in his sea bag. Two days after being honorably discharged, Arthur showed up in Cambridge to arrange his entry into the Law School in the fall. The Dean looked at his crumpled letter and asked, “Mr. Mason, what do you think this is, a coach ticket, good on any train, any day? This letter admits you to the Class starting in February 1946.” Arthur offered that he had been otherwise engaged in a war roughly 12,000 miles away at that time; the conversation went downhill from there. Arthur then went over to Columbia Law school, “presented my Harvard transcript, and said I would like to go to Columbia in September. The Dean smiled and stuck out his hand.” This story always amazed his children as one from a different age and struck his grandchildren as a way of doing things on an unrecognizable planet.

After years of vacationing at a time-share condo on Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida, Jane and Arthur looked out at the Gulf and imagined a nature-centered island community. Grossly under-prepared for the task ahead, Arthur forged ahead with an ambitious building project on Upper Captiva, a remote island that at the time had very few houses and no electricity or phone service. Forty years later, it remains an island without cars and accessible only by sea or air. From the start Arthur saw the promise of a community respectful of and centered upon nature. Arthur was the driving force behind bringing electricity to the island; building a lake that is home to countless herons, egrets, anhingas, ibises and the occasional alligator; and the creation of the Safety Harbor Club, a community of 88 homes that made a spit of sand into a loving community of people from all over the world. Book club, weekly Sketch-Fest, yoga, chorus, and annual theater productions comprise the cultural life of Bunky Island, as Arthur’s children called Safety Harbor. After Arthur sold his house in Safety Harbor Club just weeks before his death, he called in a farewell address to the Club, expressing how emotional it was to not be a member of Safety Harbor, “a place that would not exist but for me,” for the first time in 40 years. In response, Arthur was voted a lifetime member and then promptly asked for his dues, to which Arthur immediately raised a point of order.

IMG_2410
Jane and Arthur Mason, circa 1965.

Arthur Mason met Jane Sommer in early 1953 and the pair were engaged three weeks later. Married in July of 1953, Jane brought art into Arthur’s life. In the mid 1980s, the Masons developed an interest in craft, specifically in turned wood bowls. Never one for timidity, they jumped in to collecting eclectic work of both classic artists, such as Bob Stocksdale, and artists who pushed the envelope such as Robyn Horn. Hundreds of bowl purchases, many custom lighted cabinets and many museum donations later, the Jane and Arthur Mason Collection is recognized as the one of finest collection of turned wood. A show of 120 pieces at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC spawned recognition and a beautifully illustrated book. At the not infrequent tours of the home wood collection, Arthur could hold forth with some gusto. As a former law partner said back in 1988, in the early days of the Mason wood collection, “Arthur has developed a smooth, funny talk in which he can trace the entire history and significance of any bowl in less than five minutes. Unfortunately, there are more than 80 [in 1988, now hundreds] bowls, so figure on being there 4 to 5 hours [now days].”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arthur enjoyed dabbling in making art. Here he is with his friend and creative partner David Wahl and their wood creation at the Emma Lake Craft Workshop in 2000.

Arthur’s mind was always working. Upon entering a restaurant, he estimated the average bill, number of tables, and turnover to auto-calculate the evening’s gross receipts, the waiters’ evening tips and their annual income. One day before 2001, Arthur came to pick his daughter Peggy up at the airport. As she stepped out of the jetway into the gate area, he gave her a perfunctory kiss before launching with verve into the disconnect between the number of taxi cab companies, the taxi license plate numbers, and the frequency of cabs on the street.  The day before Arthur died, his family saw that they would never have another conversation with him, a fact that devastates us then and now and diminishes our future. Arthur’s words about his own father are the best way to close: “As I have gotten older I become more and more aware of how much I owe my successes in life to his teaching, moral fiber and guidance.” We have learned to love and live from the master.

IMG_7383

George Z Mason (left) and his son, Arthur K Mason, circa 1940, in New York City.

Arthur Mason leaves behind his wife Jane; three children and their spouses Kent (Susan Adams), Thomas (Jane Macht) and Peggy (Gisèle Perreault); and the Mason grandchildren Zachary (Eban Lewis), Katie (Aren Johnson), Sam (Zoe Walpuck), Emily, Isabel, and Davey.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, (3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel, FL 33957), the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St, Washington DC 20009), or the Mason Empathy Lab (University of Chicago, 947 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637).

 

 

 

40 Comments »

  1. I missed the fact this is your father, Dr. Mason. What a lovely tribute you have given, and I see now where you get your exceptional gifts. I have taken your course repeatedly and love every moment of it every time. It is encouraging to see several generations of special people. Now I want to move to that unique Florida Island your father established. My sympathy for your family’s loss. It is one of the most difficult things to face, losing a parent – one who loved you before you were born, unconditionally.

    Like

  2. What a lovely tribute to your dear father! I have shared this with Sheila as well….you wouldn’t have received my card yet, but know that our tender thoughts are with you and your family as you say goodbye to this great man.

    Yvette

    Like

  3. Peggy, you’ve written so movingly… wonderful tidbits about Bunk that I had either not known or forgotten. But what transported me completely was your first picture of him because, of course, that’s how he pops up in my memory rolodex first! How young, assured and vibrant he looks to me now… younger than we ourselves are now. But how huge a man he loomed, then. Always pushing some interesting bit of law, or challenging us with an arcane tidbit of history. Thanks for posting. I loved your dad. So glad we had the time to relax in KC the summer before last. His memory will always be called for blessings. oxoxo

    Like

  4. Truly a life well lived. How blessed you were to have such a father, and how sad you must be to let him go. My deepest condolences, Peggy

    Like

  5. Such a beautiful tribute, Peggy, that shows both the amazing life and sparkle of your Dad and the depth and warmth of your relationship with him – to Bunky with love! Glad that my family as accidental tourists ended up seeing the Mayor of North Captiva and his lovely bride at their home. Hugs and love to you, your Mom and the whole family.

    Like

  6. My memory of you and your father was at your 25th anniversary. As you both sat together, you put your arm around him, and I could see the love of father and daughter. May the lord bless and keep him always.

    Like

  7. A lovely tribute to a man so deserving. I already miss sitting in his Safety Harbor Club house talking, sometimes disagreeing, about whatever subject came to his mind while Jane chimmed in from a distance and Woodie sat quietly taking it all in. Those moments and many others will always be special for me. We miss you Arthur.
    Mike and Nancy

    Like

  8. Dear Professor Mason,

    Please accept my sincere condolences.
    What an incredible life your father lived. May he Rest In Peace.

    Regards,

    Dolat

    Sent from my iPad

    Like

  9. Damn! I started with your loving remembrance of the inimitable Arthur whom we have had the honor and joy of knowing, but now I’ve just spent several hours following the threads of your captivating site: thebrainissocool.com, and I’m totally hooked. You are too engaging a writer…like your dad…and each subject, whether scientific or just a musing, is well worth the time. Thank you, but damn: one more excuse not to get anything accomplished.

    Like

  10. my name is ivan barnett,co-owner of patina gallery in santa fe new mexico. it was through the invitation of david and suzy wahl that we met jane an arthur. what a giving passionate man arthur was…..he loved trying to help artists who
    were struggling……he deeply cared about them as people. he cared about thier families also. a generous and independent human being. he will be missed about my heart goes out to jane and his family.
    thank you arthur for your big heart.

    Like

  11. Dear Peggy, I don’t believe we’ve met, but I adored your dad and Jane, of course! What a terrific tribute to a wonderful man! We spoke on the phone a few weeks ago and I am so pleased we did! I enjoyed time with your parents on the island and shared meals at the restaurant on the beach, and driving around in the golf cart! I will always remember your dad and may his memory be a blessing for you and your family!
    Allison Buchsbaum Barnett

    Like

  12. Our sincere condolences to Jane and the Mason family. Honored to have crossed paths with these two lovely people who fostered a love of wood and encouraged so many people in wood turning.
    Sunny and Larry McClish.

    Like

  13. My heart goes out to you and your family. I have such great memories of your dad carpooling to Sidwell with him at the wheel of his Mazda. More recently, I enjoyed dropping in on both your parents in Kalorama while visiting my dad. Your father was always passionately involved in some interesting project that both Jay and I enjoyed hearing about. Please give your mom a big hug from us.

    Like

  14. I got to know Arthur several years ago when my wife, who already knew Arthur before we were married, and I vacationed on Upper Captiva for several years. I quickly learned what an interesting person he was and was lucky enough to have read all of his prodigious output of thoroughly engaging stories from his fascinating life. My deepest condolences to Jane (a brilliant conversationalist in her own right) and their family. RIP, Arthur

    Like

  15. What a beautiful tribute to your father! Thank you so much. I have so many memories of your father, especially Jane and Arthur’s many visits to Ashland. I am still looking for the photos of all of us, my kids and Charly the dog swimming in our pond. Jane drawing us in ink. Still looking….And then somewhere is a small turning that Arthur and me and both of my sons made on my lathe. Sending many blessings! If I can pull it off, I will come to DC in April. By the way, Debra just signed up for your course on Understanding the Brain! There is sooo much in your blogs, thank you!

    Like

  16. I was very saddened to hear of Arthur’s passing. Although I had not been in touch with him for 25+ years, I often thought of him as the best mentor that I ever had. I came across this lovely tribute in my search to find him in DC after all these years, I am returning for a visit, and I had hoped I would have a chance to see him and let him know much I appreciated everything that he taught me as a young associate in 1990. While I only worked with Arthur for a short time, his impact was immense, and he helped me become a better attorney and person. I send Jane and the extended family my sincere condolences. I am sorry that I did not get to DC in time for me to thank him in person.

    Like

    • Dear Jennifer,
      Thank you so much for this. I love hearing stories about my dad that I was not aware of. And I know my brothers, my mother, my nephews and nieces and spouses will also enjoy knowing reading your warm words. We are unabashedly biased when it comes to my dad. I always think that there is something particularly sweet about the kind words of someone with “no pony in the race” (ie not related).
      Many thanks for writing,
      Peggy

      Like

  17. Jane I heard about Arthur about two months after his passing. I verified it with Jim Sack. I was so saddened to with this news. Arthur was always a favorite boss and I always admired him. You and the family have my deepest condolences.
    Debbie Martin

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s