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John Mason Remembered 

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By Derek Mountford

The untimely passing of a man who had a profound impact on you personally and professionally is deeply saddening.

In the three decades since I first exchanged snail-mail with him from London, John Mason remained an engaging and fascinating personality. In particular, the six years that I taught at The Doon School during his headship were as enriching professionally as they were insightful into his personality.

The committed schoolmaster, John Mason belonged to that dying breed of teacher whose life was devoted to their ‘calling’: his vision of the world was fashioned around the duty of care of the young he had chosen for himself and his most sacred task remained their well-being and development. This simple yet powerful ethic, practiced with undiminished sincerity over decades of work, produced a formidable personality that did so much good for so many in his lifetime.

An outstanding teacher of English and credited with several successful textbooks, John Mason captured the imagination of a generation of pupils with his love of the language and his Literature in English lessons were spoken of with awe and admiration. To be, both, naturally gifted and deeply committed is a rare combination and this may explain, in part, the uniqueness of the man.

Heading a premier public school anywhere in the world is a complex assignment and the headship of The Doon School is particularly demanding: there are complexities beyond mere professional competence that navigate the fortunes of the school on a daily basis. There is also a very subtle interplay between the personality of the Headmaster and the ethos of the school during his tenure: John Mason’s deeply personal Protestant Christian ethic – to work and life and living – when entwined with the idealism that founded The Doon School – exemplified ‘the aristocracy of service’ that is, in fact, the essence of the School.

To John Mason, work was worship and institutions were built by the selfless service of those entrusted with their care: hence he wore the headmagisterial crown of the most powerful school in the land with some unease, preferring, instead, as he told me once ‘’to be the man who locks up the auditorium at night and to be the last one home’’.

While history will no doubt record his many successes in various areas of School life – and all won after hard-fought battles –  in the general discipline of the School and in academics, sport and cultural pursuit – what stands out is his fidelity to purpose and this further added to the uniqueness of the man.

When the hardest working and most honest man on the campus is the Headmaster himself, the charlatans and shirkers tend to proceed on sabbatical, giving way, instead, to a heightened pace of productivity and a culture of merit. Indeed, in his near-fanatical zeal to lift the School to another level – by dealings both fair and transparent – and to vanquish a false sense of entitlement in certain quarters, John Mason won as many lifelong admirers at The Doon School as he did enemies. He absorbed all this somewhat stoically and did not appear too sorrowful to trudge along on the high road alone from time to time if his conscience so demanded, admitting but only once in a moment of weakness that perhaps he would not have distinguished himself as a diplomat!

It would also not be entirely inappropriate to suggest that in the evolutionary history of a school, John Mason’s tenure at The Doon School coincided with a growing sentiment to reinvent itself from its original 1935 vision ‘to train young Indians to lead free India’ to something more modern and contemporary. The refreshed Vision Statement released during his headship reflects this endeavour and one infers that change of an almost seismic manner occurred during his time there. And yet, through all this, he remained a true-blue independent professional, that rare leader of men who operated without fear or favour.

Interestingly, those who won his trust were treated to a terrific sense of humour: never vulgar or banal, but almost always a deliciously wicked play of words: to a pupil complaining bitterly about the masonry in the bathing-rooms: ‘’I say, I’m John Mason, the Headmaster, and not John Master, the Head Mason!’’ Or in response to a facetious question on what games he played: ‘’When I was a young teacher at La Martiniere, every night a friend and I would bet on who would be sacked next. I now play this game alone more successfully!’’

An experienced practitioner of his trade, there was much to learn from John Mason and not a few who became headmasters themselves later in life emulated many of his ideas and practices, not the least of which was his mantra that the Headmaster’s presence signalled the importance of the event to the School Community; in all the years I worked at The Doon School, John Mason never missed a single event – big or small – and even if you were setting off on an expedition at 4 a.m., he would emerge, immaculately dressed, to see the contingent off.

They do not make men like John Mason anymore and you would be very hard pressed to find the schoolteacher in most Headmasters today, their priorities having shifted to other ‘more important’ matters of fund-raising, public relations and attending conferences at exotic locales! John Mason was also an impeccably honest man financially and quite clearly material reward was of very little significance to him.

And yet, by way of no mean achievement, for over a quarter of a century, John Mason enjoyed the bandwidth to successfully head three markedly different schools in succession: was his painstaking focus on internal administration and the consequent quality of daily life on the campus the winning mantra?

It’s strange how the simplest of memories flood the mind when you hear of a sudden passing. We are walking down to the Central Dining-hall for lunch on an ordinary working day when, out of the blue, he stopped and said: ‘’I am a schoolmaster’’ and then, after a dramatic pause, in quintessential John Masonesque: “But, mind you, NO MORE OR NO LESS’’.

And I think that is the way he would like to be remembered.

(Derek Mountford was a Housemaster at The Doon School during John Mason’s tenure as Headmaster)