Oregon State University

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, ajbuilt@gmail.com

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 (http://www.skywavebroadbadn.net)”

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

5. Travels with Cousin Georgia

We continued up the Oregon Coast on Highway 101 and passed through Gold Beach, around Humbug Mountain, through Port Orford to Bandon. The southern Oregon coast is very scenic and the towns are small, until you get to Coos Bay. At Bandon there was a very nice gallery called simply the 230 Second Street Gallery. Art work there was very high quality and the gallery itself was well done. I wanted to place some of my prints there, but they had a consignment-only policy and I was determined to sell outright. I have tried the consignment approach, and learned to limit it to galleries in my immediate vicinity, too much of a hassle otherwise.

I drove north past Reedsport, Florence, Walport, and stopped at Newport. Newport holds memories for me from my college days at Oregon State University. Whenever we decided to take off for the beach it was always the Newport area where we stopped first. OSU is at Corvallis about fifty miles east.

Arrival at Newport also marked the beginning of a short stretch where our trip follows the same route as the journey of William Least Heat Moon which he describes in his book Blue Highways. He was a professor of English and visited many college campuses including OSU on his clockwise tour of the lower forty-eight. At the time, his traveling companion was a slug. He doesn’t mention whether the slug had a name, but then I had never given my van a name and he called his van “Ghost Dancing.” He passed through about the same time of year I did. It rained on him then, and it rained on me about five years later.

I approached several galleries in Newport, but I got the same “consignment-only” story, in fact, it was the same story the full length of the Oregon coast. Oregon is a consignment-only state . . . very cautious. But I like Oregon, it has a low-key sophistication that is appealing.

Looking for Mice

The next day we crossed the Columbia River at Astoria and entered Washington, a state with more of a conservative, industrial personality. One thing I like about Washington is the number of old, abandoned logging roads that make finding free camping easy. My first night in Washington I spent in the middle of a clear cut area north of Hoquiam. It looked as if it had been cleared out twice with the most recent time being perhaps two years ago. There were the large old weathered stumps of the first cut, and the smaller more sharply contoured stumps of the second cut. I did a quick sketch in my log book of this contrast while Georgia went hunting. She brought back a small mouse.

In the morning I stopped at Humptulips to mail some letters, but I neglected to ask the obvious question. What is a humptulip? Still on 101, I entered the Olympic National Forest. The trees are much taller in National Forests . . . they’re originals.

Finally, I turned off 101 and drove eighteen miles into the Hoh River Rain Forest, and guess what? Yep! It was raining! In fact it had been raining on me off and on ever since central Oregon. Georgia does not like rain forests. I settled down in Campsite A-26. The trees were streaming with moss. They looked as if they’d been hit with a big flocking gun.

First Cut

First Cut

On the way into this spot we saw a small herd of elk wading in a pond near the road. Georgia was fascinated. So far she’d been introduced to cows, horses, sheep, and elk. For a city cat this was an eye opener. She was very impressed with the larger animals, but sheep didn’t seem to hold her interest.

Typically, Georgia slept much of the day while I was driving. Then, of course, after dark she wanted to go out and play. This made me nervous as most of these spots were not like downtown Palo Alto. There were wild animals about. At first, I wouldn’t let her out, but she became so

Georgia O'Kitty

Georgia O Kitty

insistent that I finally gave in. Initially, I sat up and waited for her like a mother waiting for her daughter to return from a date. I left a door open for her. Later, however, I just crawled into my sleeping bag and left a sliding screened window open. Too many bugs came in through the open door. Georgia gave a “meow” when she was ready to come in. She always looked so pleased with herself when she returned that I guess it was worth the risk. She was a very cautious cat after all.

In his book, Travels With Charlie, Steinbeck complained that Charlie was an early riser and would sit and stare into his face while uttering a little noise which Steinbeck wrote as “ftt.” I had a comparable problem with Georgia, only worse. How I wished that she would only stare into my face and speak softly. But not Georgia! She walked all over me . . . literally! She paced up and down my supine length stopping here and there to knead me in some soft spot. All this while purring as loudly as possible. This problem grew worse as we progressed north. It usually commenced with the first hint of daylight, and daylight arrived earlier and earlier as our latitude increased. Steinbeck didn’t know how lucky he was!

A pattern was developing in our camping routine. We would go several days camping at fairly primitive locations, and then on the third or fourth day I would try to find a spot with shower facilities. I hoped the Hoh River campground had showers, but it didn’t. It didn’t even have hot water. I decided that I had to wash my hair anyway. So I went over to the facility and used the sink. I was the only person there, and the water was so cold it hurt.

As I was drying my hair with a towel I noticed that in lieu of paper towels they had one of those hot air blowers for drying your hands. It was over near the door. I sat down on the floor underneath it and turned it on to dry my hair. I had been there about twenty seconds when another camper came through the door and almost tripped over me.

“Good morning,” I said sheepishly.

“Ahh . . . good morning,” he replied hesitantly.

“It would have helped if they had put this hair dryer higher on the wall,” I said, smiling broadly.

“Uh Huh,” he replied, quickly going about his business. As he went through his morning routine I noticed he kept giving me furtive glances out of the corner of his eye.

Well anyway, it worked fine as a hair dryer, and I felt a lot better as I headed back to my van.

I drove out of the Hoh River Rain Forest and back to 101, turned right and continued north. I took a side road to have a look at the town of Clallan Bay and then back to 101 and east through Port Angeles to Port Townsend. At Port Townsend I made an almost perfect connection (10 minutes to spare) with an unscheduled ferry departure for Whidbey Island and took the short trip to Keystone. On the Island I drove south to Langley and visited with an old friend from high school days. We chatted about mutual acquaintances for a while and then I was back on the road again looking for a place to hide the van.

The Langley area has a well-heeled look about it. Lots of fancy homes with expensive cars in the driveways. I found a spot in some bushes just off the road to South Whidbey Island State Park.

In the morning I drove the length of Whidbey Island to Anacortes to catch the ferry for Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands.

Washington’s nickname is “The Evergreen State” and that is certainly true. There is a lush verdant look everywhere. But they pay a price for it. It could also be called the “Everrain State.” Things were quite soggy. I drove clear around the Olympic Peninsula without once sighting the famous Olympic Mountains. Later I did see them from Whidbey Island during a brief, clear moment. Gray skies seem to be the norm. Some of the natives told me this had been an unusually wet spring. Hmmmm.

Olympic Mountains

Olympic Mountains

By coincidence, my trip corresponded in time with the permanent move of my friends, Dick and Dale Snyder, to the San Juan Islands. Dick is a landscape architect, Dale is an accomplished artist, and two more easy-going people you’d have a hard time finding. From my point of view, their approach to everything seems overly casual, but they do seem to have a way of getting things done. So who’s to say. Their laid-back attitude about life makes them easy to be with, and I enjoy their company.

Waterfront Property on San Juan Island

Waterfront Property on San Juan Island

Dick and Dale are a matched pair if there ever was one. They both smile a lot and they have the kind of humor that sneaks up on you. They speak in a measured deliberate fashion which only serves to increase the surprise impact of their humor. A few years prior, they purchased some waterfront property on the opposite side of San Juan Island from Friday Harbor. The property included a small cabin which sits on a short bluff looking out toward Victoria on Vancouver Island.

I had promised to be at their place when they arrived to help them unload. As it was, I arrived a day early, so I set up camp in some trees near the cabin. It was raining hard when I arrived and, since I was going to be there three days, I rigged a tarp and borrowed some electricity.

I had been there once before and knew that on days with good weather it could be a very pleasant place, but this was not one of those days. Wind and rain kept blowing in off the Straits of San Juan de Fuca with such regularity and ferocity that all I could do was hole up and try to keep warm and dry. It was the kind of day to sit by the fireplace with a good book and a snifter of brandy.

The same weather continued all day, all through the night, and into the next morning. I began to envision unloading their moving van in a booming gale. Then, about an hour before they arrived, it stopped just as if a faucet had been shut. The Sun came out, things dried out, and up the driveway came the Snyders and two moving vans. It was like the fanfare before a triumphal entrance. As I said before, the Snyders have a way of getting things done.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 2 Comments