Kenneth Mason, 97, husband, father, businessman and lover of language and ideas, passed away peacefully in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, 2019. Born March 2, 1922, in Asheville, N.C., he graduated from the Asheville School for Boys in 1939, and from Yale University in 1943, Phi Beta Kappa. Fluent in French, he served as a military intelligence officer in World War II with the Sixth Armored Division in France and was awarded the Bronze Star in 1945 for his apprehension of the killer of a military policeman.
After the war, Mason spent a few years living in Mexico and writing short fiction. His stories were published in Women’s Day, Chicago Magazine and many others. He returned and launched a prominent career as an advertising executive in Chicago and Los Angeles. (Fortune Magazine called him an “advertising boy wonder.”)
Mason joined the Quaker Oats Co., first as advertising director in 1962. He was named group vice president for U.S. grocery products and a member of the board of directors in 1968. In 1974, he was appointed executive vice president in charge of Quaker’s worldwide grocery business, and was elected president and chief operating officer in 1976. He was passionate about the effects of television and advertising on children, and during his tenure at Quaker Oats he was instrumental in the production of several children’s programs and films, including “Say Goodbye” (nominated in 1971 for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature) and “In Search of Ancient Astronauts.”
To the great shock of the business community, Mason retired as President of the Quaker Oats Co. after only three years, at the age of 57, to devote himself to thinking and writing about the role of the corporation in society. He and his wife moved to remote Pine Island in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota. Writing in Business Week, Mason declared “the business ‘profits-are-everything philosophy’ is a dreary and demeaning view of the role of business and business leaders in our society … Making a profit is no more the purpose of a corporation than getting enough to eat is the purpose of life. Getting enough to eat is a requirement of life; life’s purpose, one would hope, is somewhat broader and more challenging.” He saw corporations as the central institutions of our age, “like what the church must have been in the Middle Ages.”
In 1981, Mason was featured in a much-quoted Fortune Magazine article titled “Chucking It.” In it he wrote: “I had a strong desire to have time, before I got too old, to reflect on what my experiences had been all about and not be on a treadmill up to the last minute. It’s almost embarrassing to say, but I am a great believer that the examined life is much more worth living than the unexamined.”
Mason was a charismatic speaker and he continued to guest lecture on the ethics of business and the effects of television programming and advertising on children at the Wharton School of Business, the University of California at Berkeley, the Harvard Business School and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, among others. Mason remained on the board of directors of the Quaker Oats Company for many years and was also on the boards of Rohm and Haas Co. of Philadelphia, and of Harper & Row. His essays appeared in publications including Business Week, Harvard Business Review, the New York Times Magazine and the Bangor Daily News. A longtime supporter of public broadcasting, he was president of Chicago’s public television station, WTTW, and was a member of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting.
In 1983, after a fire destroyed the Masons’ home on Pine Island, they moved to Deer Isle, a less remote but what was to become an equally beloved island. Here he returned to fiction writing. In the fall of 1992, his short story “The Adulterers” was published in the Iowa Review and in 1995 it was selected to be part of its 25th anniversary retrospective anthology, which sought to present a sampling of the prestigious literary magazine’s “best and most interesting writing.” His novel, “One Man Once,” took its title from a Philip Larkin poem that, like dozens and dozens of poems, and vast passages from Shakespeare and Chaucer, he could recite by heart. Kenneth Mason, with his wit, his one-liners (even on his deathbed), his kindness, his generosity, his intelligence, his erudition and his supreme good looks, is survived by his beloveds, wife of 56 years, Cherie, and daughter, Shelley.
A celebration of Ken’s life will be held at Aragosta at Goose Cove on Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. Donations for a scholarship fund in his memory may be made to the Asheville School, 360 Asheville School Road, Asheville, NC 28806. (www.ashevilleschool.org)