A record of service Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

Ray Mason Jr. and his wife, Margaret, kicked off their 50th wedding anniversary celebration with the national anthem.

That might seem unusual -- until you consider the 25 years the decorated major general gave in service to his country.

"He doesn't carry that rank of general lightly," says longtime friend and fellow Rotary member Tom C. Fitzpatrick, former owner of Elford Construction Co., remembering the couple's celebration eight years ago at the Columbus Club downtown.

"To begin the evening's program, the very first thing we did was stand up and sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Now how many wedding anniversaries have you ever heard started like that?" Fitzpatrick asks. "But that's Ray Mason -- 101 percent American."

The founder of Columbus Truck and Equipment Co. Inc. retired as a major general after serving combat duty during World War II. He received the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with V for Valor and Presidential Unit Citation, among many other accolades. He then worked with the reserves and eventually shared his knowledge of trucks and transportation on various special assignments with the Pentagon.

"It was a privilege, really, to serve your country in any kind of a senior or responsible position," Mason says. "I was satisfied that I was helping the Army and helping our country be ready and be prepared to stand off enemies."

Mason -- "The General," as he's referred to commonly -- commands the respect of a giant even though he's greeted as a familiar friend or father figure by employees and others.

David S. Schoedinger, chairman of Schoedinger Funeral Services and Mason's nominator for the Junior Achievement Central Ohio Business Hall of Fame award, calls Mason "a real gentleman" who treated him as an equal when he joined Rotary in 1965, one year before Mason was elected president.

"He didn't look down on me as a youngster and I was, for quite a while, the youngest person in Rotary," Schoedinger says.

Fitzpatrick, who calls Mason a "very, very" quiet person, says determination makes him successful as a businessman.

"He has a very keen mind and a very analytical mind, and I'm sure that all derives from not only college but from his military experience," Fitzpatrick says. "It takes all those things to survive what he went through in World War II."

In fact, Mason says he might have made the military more of a career had he not had the desire to be a businessman, a profession for which he gained support from his father.

"He encouraged me to be in business for myself," Mason says of his mentor, Raymond E. Mason Sr., whom he calls "a pioneer trucker." His father drove a truck up Olentangy River Road, collecting cream and milk to bring back into the dairies, sometimes working 12, 16, 18 hours a day.

"I remember a restaurant owner telling me way down on South High Street about Dad stretching out on the counter to take a nap because he didn't have time to go home before the next day's work," Mason says.

His father, in fact, purchased Mason's first truck when he founded Columbus Truck and Equipment in 1949. At the time, Mason Jr. didn't know the country was going into a recession.

"If I had known how tough the business was going to be, I never would've done it," Mason says.

The hard times continued; another recession in the heavy-duty truck business came in the early 1980s, when interest rates soared to more than 20 percent and people weren't buying trucks.

"I never thought we would go out of business, but I know I thought on several occasions we were going to have to do something to keep it alive," he says, adding that employees took payroll cuts as one solution.

"After business got better, I gave it all back to them," says Mason, now chair of the nearly $24 million, 75-employee company.

One of his three sons, Ray Mason III, who now runs Columbus Truck and Equipment, says his father has a never-stand-still attitude. He noted that at age 80, the elder Mason is actually the one pushing the company to technological advances like an Internet presence.

"The superlatives of hard work and perseverance, honesty and integrity are a very important part of what he does in business and just about everything he does," Mason III says.

In addition to his own father, Mason Jr. includes two Junior Achievement Hall of Famers on his list of mentors: R.M. "Dick" Ross, the late president of Ross Laboratories, who Mason says was a very good businessman and an artist in his own right, and the late John B. Gerlach, who was president of Lancaster Colony Corp., for his understanding of finances and "fine streak of philanthropy."

Rob McCormick, chairman of The Frank Gates Cos. Inc., says Mason, himself, is a philanthropist.

"He's made donations of money to many, many causes which people never know about," McCormick says. "He's that kind of a person."

Fitzpatrick reiterates the thought, relaying a story from the early 1970s, when Mason was president of the local Boy Scout Council.

"They came up to the end of their fiscal year. They depend on United Way and other contributions, and for one reason or another they came up about two months short of having enough money to meet the payroll," says Fitzpatrick, a council vice president at the time. "Ray carried it for the rest of the year and didn't say one word to a soul. There probably aren't 10 people that know that. That's another indication of the kind of guy he is."

Through the Raymond E. Mason Foundation, named for his father, the family has either granted or committed $9 million to support education, the elderly and international affairs. Last year, Mason committed nearly $4 million to Ohio State's Fisher College of Business, where the Raymond E. Mason Hall, a business resource center, is named for him.

Mason serves as a trustee of the John J. and John B. Gerlach foundations and of the Mote Marine Lab Foundation, where he's also a trustee of the foundation of New College, an honors college in Florida, where he lives much of the year, and is an owner or partner in more than 15,000 acres at three ranches.

Mason, who is also a former race car driver, college polo star and instrument-rated pilot, lists gardening, woodworking, walking and horseback riding as his hobbies.

He says he'll likely never retire: "I don't think so. That wouldn't be much fun."

He's motivated by getting the job done, and getting it done properly and better than the competition, he says.

"I think most of us, anyway, want to be better tomorrow than we were today," he says. "We just want to make the world a little bit better than when we found it. That's probably my main ambition." How to reach: Ret. Maj. Gen. Ray Mason Jr., Columbus Truck and Equipment Co. Inc., 252-3111

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.