James Mason, trustee who helped establish WFU’s autonomy, dies at 86

James W. MasonJames W. Mason, a former chairman of the Wake Forest University Board of Trustees who played a key role in establishing the university’s self-governance, died Dec. 2 in the Southern Pines area. A former state senator who spent his career practicing law in Laurinburg, Mason was 86.

Mason, a 1938 graduate of the Wake Forest School of Law, served on the university’s board of trustees for six terms between 1961 and 1989. He served as chair of the board of trustees from 1978-1979, during the beginning stages of the university’s new, autonomous relationship with the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. During his term as chair, Mason spoke openly about the need for trustees – not the Baptist State Convention – to control the university.

In a statement to Baptist and Wake Forest leaders on March 9, 1978, Mason said, “There is nothing in the university charter or in the law that would prohibit Wake Forest from amending its charter so as to transfer back to itself the authority that is presently shared with the convention. … The convention and the university have shared too many goals for too many years: failure to join hands in a mutual effort to render greater service may be self-defeating for both.”

Mason negotiated a new relationship with the convention in 1979 that allowed the previously all-North Carolina, all-Baptist board to include three non-Baptist members from outside the state. The move paved the way for Wake Forest’s autonomy, which came in 1986.

“That was the first and major step that established the notion that we had to have independence if Wake Forest was to become a national institution,” said Wake Forest President Thomas K. Hearn Jr. “James had a vision for what Wake Forest could become.”

Mason served on the presidential selection committees for Hearn and for the university’s previous president, James Ralph Scales. He was also an outspoken advocate for the School of Law, serving numerous terms on the law school’s alumni council and board of visitors, and establishing a scholarship for law school students.

In 1980, the university awarded Mason its highest honor, the Medallion of Merit, and in 1996 awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree. He was also a life trustee of the university. Mason’s daughter, Celeste Mason Pittman of Rocky Mount, is currently a member of the board of trustees.

“No one ever loved this school more than he did,” Hearn said. “Wake Forest was an essential passion in James Mason’s life.”

Categories: University Announcement