The Academic Craftsman

The Academic Craftsman

Donald Lyman Mason

Donald Lyman Mason

My father, Donald Lyman Mason, was a consummate craftsman, easily the best all-around craftsman I have known in my life. The story of how he got to be that way is interesting. He was about eight years old when his father, Ralph Leslie Mason, perished (click here). His mother, Nellie Harriet (Sly) Mason, took his older sister and moved from Minnesota to Eugene, Oregon to live with her parents. Dad was left with his paternal grandparents for about a year while my grandmother got settled in Eugene. My great grandfather, William Merrill Mason, was a general contractor and was very much of the old school in his approach to his occupation. He had a large assortment of tools which he used in his trade, and which he meticulously maintained. My father was very interested in all those tools and wanted to learn to use them, but great grandfather was not about to let an eight year old boy mess with his tools. You had to serve an apprenticeship first, and eight or nine years old was just too young for that. This so frustrated my father that when he eventually did get access to tools, he went all-out and proved to be a virtuoso. The eventual result was he became a professor of industrial arts, first at Oregon State University (College) and later  at Standford University.

Perseuse With the Head of Medusa

Perseus With Medusa's Head

Dad didn’t just know how to use tools and how to build beautiful things (see a few examples here), in most cases he could tell you the history of each type of tool, why it was invented, who invented it and how it had evolved since then. This academic approach is something he may have inherited from his father who was, in fact, a professor. Dad kept a copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. This is a book written in the 1500s, and while admitting that Cellini himself was something of a scoundrel, he nevertheless admired his craftsmanship as a metal smith. Toward the end of the book there is a detailed  description of how Cellini cast the huge bronze sculpture called Perseus with Medusa’s Head. Dad used to cite that passage as an example of the history of foundry practice.

Chester W. Sly

Chester W. Sly

Backing up a bit, circa 1920 my grandmother found a job in Eugene as secretary to the president of the University of Oregon and Dad joined the extended family there. In his maternal grandfather, Chester W. Sly, Dad found a more tolerant personality, and one who also had an extensive collection of tools. Chester was a butter maker by trade, but he learned his trade in college. He was a graduate of Lawrence University in Wisconsin back in the days when trades were still taught at the college level. This also may have contributed to Dad’s academic approach since Chester became his new mentor. A number of Chester’s tools are now in my possession and I know this because he stamped “Sly” into his tools with a center punch. It’s a nice short name for that kind of thing. It is, by counting from Chester, that my daughter is a fifth generation college graduate.

Dad clowning around when on the faculty at Oregon State

Dad clowning around when on the faculty at Oregon State

Dad graduated from Oregon State in 1936(?) while the Great Depression was in full force. However, he and two other top students, Asa Robly and Russ Jenkins, were hired by the University as teaching assistants. There were no other jobs to be had so they stayed in academia. Asa’s subject was welding and fabrication, Russ was a machinist, and Dad taught foundry. The three of them were good friends. After several years Asa took a position at Stanford teaching his specialty and shortly thereafter he wrote Dad saying, “They need someone here to teach foundry.” One thing led to another and in 1942 just after the start of WWII we moved to Palo Alto, California. One of the good things about Dad’s involvement with the industrial arts curriculum is that it earned him a “Critical Industry Deferment” from the draft for the duration of the war. During 1944 and 1945, while I was starting grade school, I was considered lucky because I had a dad at home. Most of the other kids’ fathers were off fighting somewhere.

Here is another little story that illustrates Dad’s reputation as a superb craftsman. In 1956 I enrolled at Oregon State to follow in Dads footsteps. I majored in industrial engineering and in those days that involved taking many shop courses. When it came time for me to take machine shop I introduced myself to Russ Jenkins who was still on the faculty and, by then, was a full professor. On the first day of class a young teaching assistant (TA) gave a lecture on how to sharpen a tool bit for a metal lathe. He then gave each student a piece of tool bit stock and sent them off to a long row of grinders along one wall of the shop to create a tool bit. After a short time the TA started down the row giving a critique to each student. It was, “A little more here,” “A  bit more there,” ” This angle is not quite right,” —  that kind of thing. By the time he reached me I was finished. I handed him my bit and and he scrutinized it. Then he looked at me and said, ”You’ve done this before.” ”Actually, I haven’t, but your lecture was quite clear,” was my truthful reply. Just then Professor Jenkins walked by and the TA turned to him and said, ”Look at this, and he says he has never done this before!” Professor Jenkins took the bit, looked it over, then he looked up at me.”Oh!” he said, “That’s Don Mason’s son. He’ll probably do everything right.”

Right then and there I knew that I must ace this course. It was imperative. Nothing less than an “A” would do. All the other courses in my curriculum became secondary while I focused on machine shop. I am happy to report that it worked and I got my “A.” In fact, I got an “A” in all the shop courses largely because I arrived way ahead of the game.

At any rate that is the kind of father that my sister, Irene Joyce (Mason) Jenkins, and I grew up with. Dad made sure we each had our own workbench in his home shop. To this day, if you hand my sister any kind of tool (hand tool or power tool), even if she has never used it before, she will handle it with a natural competence. When it comes to tool country we are natives!

One last little story to cap off this tale. Somewhere around 1960, plus or minus a few years, Dad decided to build a wall along one side of the property in Palo Alto. It would run the length of the property (150 feet), be built of colored concrete  blocks and have an ornate element to it. Because it was built by Dad, it is still there fifty-plus years later. It is still as strong and straight and true as ever, although the color is a little faded. One day while he was finishing this project out near the sidewalk at the front of the property a little old lady came stumping along using a cane. She stopped for a while to watch and they smiled at each other. Finally the lady said,

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:”

This is the first line of a poem by John Keats and one of a number that Dad had committed to memory. Dad stopped what he was doing, turned to the little old lady and replied,

“Its loveliness increases; it will never”

She continued,

“Pass into nothingness; but still will keep”

He replied,

“A bower quiet for us, and a sleep . . .”

I am not certain they got through the whole poem, it is lengthy, but there was a true meeting of the minds. Later, when Dad came in for dinner, he was still smiling broadly and chuckling to himself. As we sat down for dinner Mom said, “What are you so pleased about?” and he related what had just happened. It gives you just one more view of my remarkable father.

Here is a tale about the master craftsman from daughter Irene:  ”We have

three sons and when the first two David and Robert were born my Daddy

(he always wanted to be called Daddy) took them to his workshop and put

sawdust in their shoe. That, he said, “will make them a good craftsman”

and so it did in the fields that they pursue, Biotech and IT. He died just

before our third son Andrew was born so my husband Don and I took Andrew

to his workshop and put saw dust in his shoe.  Andrew is the one who is

especially good with his hands at building almost anything; it is

like a soul transfer with my fathers words echoing down ‘If it is worth

doing, it is worth doing right’.  Andrew is a contractor and works in

the San Diego area.

AJ Built Construction,

Robert also has a love of working with wood and is fixing his garage at his new home with a large workbench. His IT WiFi co. website is (”

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Saturday, May 22nd, 2010 The Academic Craftsman No Comments