Mason Is Praised for Regional Leadership

Mason Is Praised for Regional Leadership

Friends, colleagues recall his governance and consensus-building.

    John Mason

Besides all he did for the City of Fairfax, former Mayor John Mason also played an important part in the county and region. “He was a fantastic planner and manager,” said former Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. “That’s why he was tapped to lead the Workhouse Arts Center.”

“Because of his leadership, the Workhouse Arts Foundation was well positioned for success,” said Foundation Board Chair Caroline Blanco. “After he left this role, John continued to be a strong advocate for the Workhouse. In his passing, the Workhouse has certainly lost one of its most prominent and dedicated family members.” 

Bulova described Mason as “a renaissance man, curious and interested in everything. He was a mayor of a small city but wound up being a transportation giant in the region on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority [NVTA],” she said. “He really enjoyed getting into the weeds of transportation and its funding and was highly respected in that field.”

She first got to know him in 1988 when she became Braddock District Supervisor and he was a City Councilman. 

“I started getting angry letters and phone calls about a proposal he’d made to connect Pickett Road through a county neighborhood,” explained Bulova. “I wasn’t even sure where Pickett Road was, so I called and asked him what was going on.

“He backed off; he hadn’t realized what difficulties it would cause that neighborhood. But we connected over it and became good friends and colleagues. We then created a county/city committee so we could work through some next-door-neighbor issues together where our jurisdictions touched. One of them was the City library; John and I worked together on moving it and finding ways of funding its relocation and construction.”

Bulova said Mason had a connection with the actual Lord Fairfax, for whom the county and City are named, and Mason hosted him in his home when he came here from England for one of the county’s anniversary celebrations. And when he returned in 2018, Mason arranged for him to tour the perimeter of the land his ancestors had granted to the county.

But time moved on; and about 18 months ago, said Bulova, Mason shared that his cancer had returned, and he was going through chemo. “Yet he was upbeat and optimistic,” she said. “You’d never know he was dealing with a major health challenge. He was just a good guy, with a talent for bringing people together. I was very saddened to hear of his passing. The world has lost a wonderful human being – but what a legacy he’s left in so many different areas.”

Former Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross served with Mason on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and on the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. And she and Mason were among a delegation visiting Israel in 1998. “We visited a kibbutz overlooking Lebanon and saw gun emplacements,” she said. “John, with his military background, made it all come alive and gave us a lesson in military tactics because he’d been through it himself in Vietnam.”

And at COG, said Gross, “He was an expert in transportation. When he walked into the room, you instantly felt better because you knew he knew what he was talking about and would help you find a solution.”

While on COG’s board, she said, Mason was first diagnosed with bladder cancer. “We watched his physical changes as he underwent treatment,” said Gross. “But he was a profile in courage, doing the best he could while undergoing a personal crisis.”

She said Mason understood the value of regional cooperation throughout the entire Washington Metropolitan area and called his revival of the Workhouse a “later-in-life, defining moment for him. He was a lovely person, and I’m so glad I got to know him as well as I did, because he was truly a symbol of doing the right thing.”

When Marty Nohe was vice chairman of the NVTA, Mason was hired as its first executive director in 2005. The entity knew he’d be a good fit, said Nohe, because, while Fairfax City mayor, “John was considered the elder statesman of Northern Virginia government and typified the spirit of consensus-building and cooperation necessary to make the region run well.”

After about nine months, though, he had to leave the NVTA when its funding dried up. But he returned after new state legislation was passed in 2013 to fund it. Nohe was its chairman then and hired Monica Backmon as executive director. “But we needed someone ready to hit the ground running and lead it before she came on board, so I asked John to return,” said Nohe. 

“He was glad to because he wanted to finish what he’d started. His two conditions were that he be called interim executive director and would be part time. He put the long-term success of the organization and service to the region ahead of his own personal ambitions.”

Nohe and Mason were also friends who had monthly lunches at Artie’s in Fairfax. “He mentored me on leadership,” said Nohe. “John taught me that, in public life, when you have the opportunity to serve in an influential role, the reward should be the satisfaction of serving your community and making your hometown a better place to live, rather than the short-term glory of seeing your name in the papers.”

“He cared more about setting the stage for the next generation than about getting praised about what he was doing in the present,” continued Nohe. “And that’s what made him such a great man. He was the go-to person for advice; and as a friend, I loved the guy. I knew he wasn’t well, and his body was failing him, but I’m heartbroken about his death. He was an inspiration for anyone who wanted to serve in local government and do it well.”