City of Fairfax Mourns its Former Mayor

City of Fairfax Mourns its Former Mayor

John Mason: ‘Gifted leader’ and champion of the arts.

John Mason standing at the corner of Farrcroft Drive and John Mason Place in Fairfax.

John Mason standing at the corner of Farrcroft Drive and John Mason Place in Fairfax.

City of Fairfax residents are mourning their longest-serving mayor ever, John Mason, who died last Wednesday, Feb. 7 at age 89 after a second battle with cancer. He was a City Council member from 1986-1990 and mayor from 1990-2002. And to honor his legacy, from Feb. 7-14. flags at Fairfax City Hall were flown at half-mast.

Even after he left office, said current Fairfax Mayor Catherine Read, “He never stopped serving in a leadership role here in the City and in Northern Virginia. I sit on regional boards and commissions where Mayor Mason once sat, and he’s still spoken about with reverence for his foresight and commitment to building a thriving economic region with Fairfax City at its center. His years of service are his legacy for all of us and for future generations.”

Mason is survived by his wife, Jeanette; their three grown children, John, Joanna and 

Cutting a ribbon on the Interpretive Center at Fairfax’s Historic Blenheim in 2008 are (at far right) Chap Petersen, Jeff Greenfield and John Mason. 


Jeffrey; and four grandchildren. And last May, the Masons celebrated their 60th anniversary by inspiring their community to raise more than $11,000 for The Lamb Center, a daytime, drop-in shelter in the City. 

“They chose to commemorate their joyful occasion by giving back,” said friend and Councilmember Tom Ross. “They exemplify the true essence of community spirit, uniting and catalyzing action for the betterment of our homeless neighbors.”

Mason just turned 89 on Jan. 27; however, for the past year-and-a-half, he’d been quietly fighting cancer. “He was undergoing chemo treatment, but still leading an active life and making lots of plans for future things, right up to the end,” said longtime close friend, David Meyer, also a past Fairfax mayor. “He was thinking about the United States’ 250th birthday in 2026 and what the area should do to celebrate it.”

Recently, though, Mason entered The Virginian in Fairfax for rehabilitation. But he took a turn for the worse and his condition rapidly deteriorated. He died in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, surrounded by family and friends.

“I’ve known John since my wife and I moved to the City in 1981 and he was president of our neighborhood’s – Old Lee Hills – Civic Association,” said Meyer. “He’d spent 20 years in the Army, retiring in 1976, and went to work at SAIC, heading its transportation consulting group. Then he put down roots here in the City.”

Meyer noted that “people used to say John was so persuasive at getting people to volunteer for things that it was like getting ‘volun-told.’” For example, when Meyer was just 29, Mason got him to play Santa for the neighborhood. 

“Our civic association had Santa go around to each house with small children and ask what they wanted for Christmas,” said Meyer. “Then volunteers would buy and wrap the presents and, as Santa, I’d deliver them. John was my driver.” 

However, he continued, “My wife stuffed all these pillows into my Santa suit, and John showed up in a tiny, Volkswagen bug and I could hardly fit into it – but we had fun together. And that was my introduction to John Mason. Little did we know that one day, we’d both be mayors.”

As Fairfax mayor for 12 years, said Meyer, “John understood the importance of building community support for new initiatives. And in 1990, he created the 2020 Commission to answer the question of where we wanted the City to be 20 years from then.”

The entity looked at all aspects of Fairfax’s civic life – schools, parks, trails, housing, transportation system, the City’s position in the region, its relationship with GMU, and the redevelopment of its commercial centers. Subcommittees had citizen groups examine these issues, make recommendations about them and ultimately create a report. 

“This became the roadmap for guiding the City’s future polity decisions and priorities,” said Meyer. “It was like a Comprehensive Plan on steroids because it was far-reaching and comprehensive. And it emphasized how all these things were interrelated and reinforced each other. For example, it discussed improving our schools, upgrading our parks, protecting our natural environment and creating more diverse housing options.”

But that’s not all. “John simultaneously promoted the arts in the City while raising money under Spotlight on the Arts for scholarships for students to study the arts at GMU,” said Meyer. “He was the spark behind Spotlight. And even after leaving office, he kept up with transportation and housing issues, both regionally and Citywide.

“He was a strong believer in regionality and put Fairfax City on the regional map. He was a board member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments [COG] and chaired its transportation planning board. John was also instrumental in helping establish the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority [NVTA], serving as its first executive director.”

Furthermore, when Sharon Bulova chaired the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, she asked Mason to become CEO Of the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton. There, said Meyer, “He was transformative in restructuring its debt and getting it onto solid, financial footing to move forward.”

Deeply saddened by the loss of his friend, Meyer said, “John was innately bright, had a quick sense of humor and an appreciation of irony while keeping his good cheer. I’m thankful for his presence among us; he was a gifted leader and a good friend to many people.”

City Councilmember Jeff Greenfield – who as a teen, worked on Mason’s first political campaign – called his death “a tremendous loss for his family and the community at large. “John was mayor when we were looking at redevelopment opportunities for Old Town,” said Greenfield. “Under his watch, we got all the plans in place.”

They entailed moving the post office from North Street and Route 123 to Page Avenue, removing a gas station from North and University Drive, and moving the library from Chain Bridge Road to North and Old Lee Highway. And when the Farrcroft community was approved during Mason’s tenure in the mid-’90s, said Greenfield, “The City finally got housing for residents who wanted to move up to larger homes with larger yards. It was something modern, new and different.”

“I was always impressed – not only with John’s military background, which made him a good leader – but his command of the subjects he was dealing with, like transportation,” continued Greenfield. “He really had a vision for the City and worked to get consensus for it. He was one of our top mayors.”

Greenfield said Mason was also a “tremendous family man, proud of his kids and grandchildren. I’d be walking into Daniels Run Elementary to get my daughter after school, and he’d be walking out with a grandchild. I could write a book about all the stories John told me about his life and the City. I’d joke with him that, if he’d have let people see his softer, less-formal side, he could have been mayor for life.”

Former City Councilmember Steve Stombres knew Mason since 1998. “I and residents all across the City are grateful for his many years of service to the community,” said Stombres. “He was a tireless advocate for many important causes – such as parks and recreation, trails and the arts – and he’s going to be greatly missed.” And even after Mason was no longer mayor, said Stombres, “He continued to deliver results for the things he cared about.”

Stombres said Mason’s death surprised him. “When he was mayor, he had a bout with cancer, so this was his second time,” said Stombres. After moving from Old Lee Hills, the Masons moved to Stombres’s neighborhood, Farrcroft. 

“When the development was built, a street was named after John, and he and Jeanette have been truly wonderful neighbors,” said Stombres. “Jeanette’s an amazing lady and has always been a great strength for John and a wonderful partner in all he did.” 

During Stombres’s first Council campaign in 2008, he asked Mason for advice on how to conduct it. “He gave me a whole litany of what to do and not to do – even what to wear when knocking on doors,” said Stombres. “He walked me through all the City’s development plans; he was a fount of knowledge. He also told me how to conduct myself – to be respectful even to people I disagreed with; it was great advice, and I won.” 

Stombres called Spotlight on the Arts one of Mason’s “lasting legacies to Fairfax. What an impact he had on the City; it’s a testament to all the lives he touched here. He was a constant presence in the City.”

Mason founded Spotlight with Fairfax resident Jane Woods. “Their vision was to create an arts organization in the City that not only promoted the arts, but also supported students attending the College of Visual and Performing Arts at GMU,” said Spotlight President and former City Councilmember Michael DeMarco. “Their efforts led to a vibrant arts community in the City and provided several hundred thousand dollars in scholarships to deserving Mason students.

He said Mason’s death was “certainly sad news for many people, including myself. I met John when I first ran for City Council in 2010. He came up to me after the first candidates’ forum, told me he liked my vision for the City and became a supporter of mine immediately. 
“After my first election to City Council, John asked me to join Spotlight’s board. Little did I know, he was grooming me to take over his position as president. John was more than a mentor to me – he was a friend. He was a great public servant to the City, region and nation and will be sorely missed.”