As a schoolboy, James O. Mason would wait outside LDS Hospital for his mother, a nurse, and they would walk home together along 8th Avenue in Salt Lake City.
He credits her influence with leading him into the field of medicine and public health, quite a compliment since today he leads the largest public health service agency in the world.A former stake president, and in the 1980s regional representative to the Rock Springs Wyoming Region, Dr. Mason, since 1989, has been head of the U.S. Public Health Service and assistant secretary for Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
He mentioned his mother's influence May 21 as he accepted the 1992 Legacy of Life Award from the LDS Hospital-Deseret Foundation Heart and Lung Institute. Hundreds of colleagues and admirers in the medical and related professions gathered to honor the doctor at a banquet held to raise funds for medical research and disease prevention.
Among several General Authorities in attendance were Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, first and second counselors in the First Presidency.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve, though not in attendance, paid tribute to Dr. Mason in an audio-visual retrospective of his life. Elder Nelson, a heart surgeon by profession, read a poem he had written, "James O. Mason, Four-Star Exemplar." The poem praised the doctor's service in government, health, science, Church and family.
Dr. Mason was appointed as Church Commissioner of Health Services in July 1970. As such, he directed the Church's multi-hospital health-care organization - including LDS Hospital - until 1975, when the Church transferred ownership of its hospital holdings to a private organization.
On a government level, he was executive director of the Utah Department of Health from 1979-1983, and director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., from 1983 until his current appointment in 1989.
Louis W. Sullivan, U.S. Secretary for Health, praised Dr. Mason in a video-taped tribute shown at the banquet.
"Jim and I have served together more than three years in the Bush Administration," Dr. Sullivan said. "In that time I've learned many things about him personally and professionally. He is a family man. He is a religious man. He is a decent, committed and caring professional. And finally, Jim Mason is a champion for public health.
"His labor is guided by a Biblical passage. The text hangs framed in his office for all to see. It says: `Where there is no vision, the people perish.' [Prov. 29:18.T Jim is a visionary. But he doesn't stop with the vision. He makes things happen."
Dr. Sullivan cited Healthy People 2000 as "a shining example" of Dr. Mason's ability to make good things happen. It is a statement of goals and objectives for national health promotion and disease prevention, "a vision of what can be accomplished by the year 2000," Dr. Sullivan said.
In the taped retrospective, Dr. Mason's wife, Marie, recalled her husband's appointment as director of the Centers for Disease Control. She said they had both decided he should not take the position because it would disrupt their family life. But shortly after that, they went to a professional retreat on Long Island, N.Y. There, during a conversation with one of the centers' former directors, Sister Mason said, she knew he should take the position. Back in their hotel room, she told her husband of her feeling, but he said it was too late because he had already written a letter declining the position.
"I was sick at heart," she said, "because I felt he had given that up because of my reluctance. When we returned home we found that his secretary had decided to hold onto the letter until he returned. She had never done anything like that before."
Sister Mason said she felt the Lord's hand had been involved because it was right her husband should take the position.
In accepting the award, Dr. Mason compared the research budget of the National Institutes of Health - $6 billion - with the total amount spent on research for disease prevention - $18 billion.
"So for every dollar that the federal government from your taxes puts into biomedical research, it's matched two-fold by the private sector - individuals, private businesses, voluntary health organizations who contribute. And so were it not for the federal-private sector teamwork, the advances and the miracles that have been forthcoming over the last 20 or 30 years would not have been possible."
Expressing gratitude to others, he said: "If I've succeeded at anything, it's been because wherever I've been there have been many, many others who wanted to become part of something worthwhile."