SEEN UP NORTH: Dr Mason ‘a tireless fighter’
When it became known last year that Prime Minister David Thompson was suffering from pancreatic cancer, an immediate and sympathetic note was struck by Dr Marco Mason.
“I understand what his family and Barbados are going to have to endure,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
That understanding voice came from a person who knew what he has was taking about. For the 67-year-old medical sociologist had been diagnosed almost a year earlier with the same terminal disease.
And when Thompson died last year, Mason, a Brooklyn resident for more than 40 years, realized his days too were numbered.
“He was a young man at the height of his power with everything to live for,” he told the SUNDAY?SUN.
“My heart goes out to his family and to Barbados.”
After battling with the disease for almost two years, Mason, a frequent visitor to Barbados where he has several relatives in St Philip, died last Monday morning in a Brooklyn hospital.
And the tributes are pouring in, like a surging river, from across the city and the state of New York, not to mention Panama. Of the many words of praise, some that stand out include “a rare gift to the city”, an “international institution” and “a tireless fighter for the common good”, especially for immigrants and people of colour.
Known to academic colleagues and a host of government officials as “Dr Mason” and as “Marco” to almost everyone else, the scholar whose family roots were deeply embedded in Caribbean soil – Barbados and Jamaica – stood in New York city like the colossus at Rhodes, and wasn’t reluctant to stride across the stage of life and community activism with flamboyance and effect.
Known for his sartorial splendour, the only son of Claude Mason, whose parents were Barbadians, and Erlean Mason, the daughter of Jamaicans, was born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone, along with his five sisters.
It was in Panama that Mason said he developed his passion for education and appreciation for social justice. And after he came to New York city with his family in the 1960s, he aggressively seized every chance to attain some of the highest levels of academic and professional certification.
“You know my father believed in education and drilled it into us,” he often recalled.
“My mother was the same way. In a way, my father got it from Barbados and from his father.”
Little wonder that the sociologist who often spoke fondly of his relatives in Barbados, earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and a doctorate in social welfare from the City University of New York.
It explains too why he became a college professor, teaching at St Joseph’s College, the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College and the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island.
Between “Marco” and his sisters, they collectively earned more than 20 different university degrees, including Dr Claudette Mason, a psychologist, and Dr Yvonne Mason, a physician. In addition, his two children also hold doctorates, one of them in nuclear physics.
Of course, he credited his Bajan and Jamaican parents with his siblings’ achievement. But that was only a single chapter in his extensive background.
The bilingual community activist was fluent in Spanish and English and was adept at community organizing and development.
Nothing deterred him from working to bring people together to develop community, city and statewide institutions that would eliminate the barriers of racial discrimination and social class structures.
For instance, he was a co-founder, along with Yvonne Graham, Brooklyn’s deputy borough president, of the Caribbean Women’s Health Association in the 1980s, eventually rising to be its executive director.
He was vice-chairman of the board of trustees of Inter-Faith Medical Centre; and sat on the advisory boards of the Caribbean Research Centre at Medgar Evers College, the University Hospital of Brooklyn/ SUNY Downstate Medical Centre, and of Kingsbrook Medical Centre.
A technical expert in United States immigration policy and procedures, he routinely appeared before the US Immigration and Naturalization Court and the Board of Immigration Appeal, representing thousands of West Indians and Hispanics. That wasn’t all.
He functioned as a representative of NGOs at global conferences that dealt with women’s issues, HIV/AIDS, population and development and public health. He was the recipient of more than 150 awards, honours and citations.
“Dr Mason was always energetic, full of life and sound political instincts,” said United States congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
That energy was seen in his determination to lead an active life while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, fighting to prolong his life as pancreatic cancer took a heavy toll on his body. He travelled extensively, lived in a large and beautifully decorated Brooklyn brownstone, and in his last days drove an expensive Bentley car, which he described as a “gift” to himself. He had also planned a trip to Barbados where he said he owned a “piece of the rock”. But he didn’t make it.
In a way, “Marco” was larger than life and taught everyone a lesson in coping with adversity, even when certain death was around the corner.