'Vision': Watchword that has guided life of general authority

As head of the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. James O. Mason had a passage of scripture framed and displayed prominently near his desk: "Where there is no vision, the people perish. . . ." (Prov. 29:18.)

For Dr. Mason, 63, sustained at general conference April 2 as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, the scripture has provided a guiding beacon in all aspects of life: professional, family and Church."The scripture is true for nations, for families, and for individuals," he explained. In any work that I've ever had, it seemed the most important thing was to recognize what's going to happen five, 10, or 100 years from now rather than what's going to happen this afternoon or tomorrow."

Vision guided Elder Mason's life even during his boyhood in Salt Lake City, when he was influenced by the values and behavior of his father, A. Stanton Mason, an acountant; his mother, Neoma Thorup Mason, a nurse at LDS Hospital and Primary Children's Hospital Administrator; and his wife-to-be, Marie Smith.

He met Marie when they were 13 when her family moved into his ward, the East Ensign Ward.

"She wanted to marry a returned missionary," he said, "and someone who loved the Lord. That certainly gave me a vision of what I'd have to be if I were going to be worthy to marry her someday."

He served a mission in Denmark from 1950-52, an experience he credits with his spiritual growth and development of self confidence. It was near the end of his mission that a momentous experience in his life occurred, an answer to a prayer regarding his future.

Having spent a year at the university, he had assumed he would probably be an engineer. But on his mission he found he enjoyed interacting with people. Once again, a vision for the future - perhaps stemming from the influence of his mother, the nurse - came into play.

"I had this very strong and compelling impression that the Lord wanted me to do something in medicine."

He and Marie were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Dec. 29, 1952, the same month he was released from his mission. He immediately entered the pre-med program at the University of Utah.

The Masons had planned for financial reasons to postpone having children until medical school was completed.

One day, soon after their marriage, while helping with some chores at his parents' home, he came across an article in an old Improvement Era by then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve.

"Basically, here was Elder Kimball saying it was the responsibility of a married couple to have children, that they shouldn't postpone them and let other goals in life come before the responsibility of bearing children. I said to myself, `I've got to talk to him.' "

Less than a half-hour after reading the article he was sitting across the desk from the apostle who had written it.

"This kind, fatherly, wonderful man looked at me, and said, `Well, Brother Mason, if the Lord wants you to be a physician, He will enable you to do that without breaking one of His fundamental and important commandments.' " Sister Mason remembered: "It was about that time that I realized the Lord had a purpose for him and for us. So the greatest desire of my heart was that we be where the Lord wanted us to be at any given time doing the things that He had in mind for us. And that was always what guided us."

Their eldest son, James S., was born about 10 months later. Six more children would become part of the Mason household as their father pursued an illustrious career that took him from an internship at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Univeristy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., to a position as head of the largest public health agency in the world.

In 1959, having deferred his military obligation by entering the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Utah and later entering medical school, it was now time to fulfill it. He did so by entering a branch of the U.S. Public Health Service (part of the U.S. government's Uniformed Service, which includes the military branches) called the Epidemic Intelligence Service.

That service had been developed soon after World War II to provide a cadre of trained epidemiologists that could detect an attack by a foreign power using biological or chemical agents.

"At the same time, we were able to detect all sorts of other infectious disease epidemics that had nothing to do with foreign intrusions."

The service gave Dr. Mason a new sense of vision. At Johns Hopkins he had been able to treat patients' symptoms. As an epidemiologist, he reasoned, he could help prevent the underlying causes of the diseases, including persuading people to alter life-threatening behavior such as smoking, alcohol abuse, improper diet and lack of exercise.

"Someone's got to treat people when they're ill, and that's a noble and wonderful calling, but I decided I would like to work on the other end and see what we could do to keep people from getting sick in the first place," he said.

The concept is analagous to the gospel, Elder Mason affirmed. "If we can teach people eternal principles and encourage faith and testimonies, that's going to have a dramatic effect on their behavior, and they won't have as much reason to experience the painful, difficult process of repentance."

As much as it is a gospel of repentance, it is a gospel of prevention, Elder Mason said.

Having determined his life's work, Dr. Mason completed his residency in internal medicine then earned master's and doctor's degrees in public health at Harvard University. In between, he spent 21/2 months in Liberia working with the Firestone Plantation Co., providing medical services to indigent people.

"That was the beginning of a love affair I've had with both the continent of Africa and African people," he said. He also had developed an affection for disadvantaged people while training at Johns Hopkins.

In 1968, LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City asked him to serve as director of their infectious disease program. While doing that, he taught and consulted at Primary Children's Hospital and at the University of Utah Medical School. A year later, the Centers for Disease Control offered him a position as deputy director.

He initially turned it down. But he consulted with one of his role models, Dr. Russell M. Nelson, a heart surgeon who would later become a member of the Council of the Twelve. Dr. Nelson, then his stake president in the Bonneville Stake, advised him to pray about it. The Masons took the position and returned to Atlanta, where he was called to be president of the Atlanta Stake before they had moved into their home in Atlanta.

A year had not gone by before the Presiding Bishopric asked Dr. Mason to come oversee the Church's 15 hospitals in the Mountain West, which included LDS Hospital and Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City; McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah; and Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah.

Church ownership of the hospitals stemmed from pioneer days, when there was no other entity to found medical instutions. Now times were changing.

Dr. Mason was made commissioner of health services for the Church with the dual responsibility of directing the hospitals and welfare services for members living in developing areas of the world.

The welfare services missionary program was initiated to assist these areas. Doctors, agricultural specialists, nurses, home economists, and nutritionists were called to serve in developing areas of the Church.

The Health Services Corp. of the Church was created under the Presiding Bishopric and each hospital became part of a multi-hospital corporation. Each hospital was helped to be financially self-sustaining. Then came time to look to the future, a time to gain some vision.

"The Church operates 15 hospitals; where should we be in 10 years?" he asked at the time. Do we want to have the same 15? Do we want 150 or none? Do we want all of them to be in the United States, or do we want them in developing countries where people have less opportunity?"

A careful review of scripture and the words of latter-day prophets indicated that the Church was interested in helping members care for themselves and it didn't really matter who owned the hospitals. By not owning hospitals, the Church could utilize money necessary for building and renovation for caring for the sick or for other purposes.

As a result, Intermountain Health Care Inc., a non-profit, self-perpetuating entity, was created. Ownership of all the hospitals was transferred to the new corporation, and the Church was out of the hospital business, and Dr. Mason's work was completed.

Dr. Mason became the Utah director of public health laboratories. He later joined the faculty of the University of Utah Medical School as the director of the Division of Community Medicine."

Later came a term as executive director of the Utah Health Department. Then it was back to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this time as director.

He served for five years as the head of CDC, then newly elected U.S. President George Bush appointed him as assistant secretary for health and head of the U.S. Public Health Service in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In that position, he directed the drafting of "Healthy People 2000," a document setting forth a vision of how the nation ought to proceed pursuant to health promotion and disease prevention. The document is still being followed under the administration of President Bill Clinton, Elder Mason said.

Recently retired from government service, and now living in Farmington, Utah, Elder Mason looks forward to full-time Church service. Looking fit and robust, he has jogged throughout his life and, with his family, hikes and skis.

Vision, the watchword that has guided his life, is a quality that pervades the Kingdom of God. This is particularly true regarding health and well-being, Elder Mason affirms.

"If people would keep the Word of Wisdom, doing what it says to do and not do, and live the law of chastity, we could eliminate better than 90 percent of the causes of premature death and disability. We continue to age whether we live the commandments or not. But so much of the diseases that are afflicting mankind today are preventable because they directly relate to behavior that results in poor physical and mental health, and the breakdown of the family. Look at the influence of alcohol and drug abuse and what it does to homes, families and society. We see a growing AIDS epidemic associated with disregard for God's moral laws.

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