In Memoriam Philip Parker Mason

Dr. Philip Mason

In Memoriam
Philip Parker Mason
April 27, 1927-May 6, 2021

The Walter P. Reuther Library regrets to share the sad news that its founding Director, Dr. Philip Parker Mason, has passed. He was 94. In addition to serving as the Reuther’s founding Director, a position he first occupied in 1958, his contributions to the larger archival profession and as a historian with an extensive publication record, consultancies, and teaching portfolio, reflects a depth and variety that is not often found in the academic community. Many of Mason’s accomplishments are outlined in an oral history where he was the subject. Conducted by Dr. Louis Jones, this forthcoming resource will be available for review at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts on April 27, 1927, Mason was the son of Homer Philip Mason and Mildred Trask Mason. He was the second of four children. Upon graduating from Beverly High School in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1945, Mason entered the Navy during WWII, where he served as Seaman 1st Class, eventually moving up the ranks to Machinist Mate 3rd Class. Following his WWII service, he entered Boston University where, with the help of the G.I. Bill, he received a BA in history, finishing that degree in 1950. He continued his education at the University of Michigan where he received a MA in history in 1951 followed by his PhD in history in 1956. During his tenure at the University of Michigan, he worked at the Bentley Historical Library, where he first learned about the importance of archival work. This experience inspired him to pursue the work that would fill most of his career. While still working on his doctorate, he took on the position of Archivist for the State of Michigan. Thereafter, he was appointed the position of Director of the University Archives at Wayne State University with a joint appointment in the Department of History. He would remain at Wayne State for the duration of a long and productive career.

The relationships he nurtured with Walter Reuther and others within the leadership of the UAW, especially Leonard Woodcock, paved the way for that union to contribute $2,300,000.00 towards the construction of the Walter P. Reuther Library in 1975. With additional funds from the UAW, the Leonard Woodcock Wing was erected in 1991. It was under his tenure as director of what would become the Reuther Library that Mason collected some of its most prominent collections, including those of the United Auto Workers, United Farm Workers, the Detroit Branch of the NAACP, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, Industrial Workers of the World, and Rosa Parks, in addition to countless others. Mason nurtured close relationships with many of the labor leaders whose papers he collected, especially Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. In fact, he and Chavez played handball together and Mason would later serve as a pallbearer at Chavez’s funeral.

His publication record is vast. These publications, many of them books, include those regarding Jewish archival institutions, Michigan’s role in the Civil War, Michigan-based foundations, the Ambassador Bridge, prohibition, Harper Hospital, copper mining and culture in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Prismatic Club, and a history of American roads, the latter of which stemmed from his dissertation on the same subject. His interest in state and local history led to many of these publications, including those regarding the 19th century expeditions of Douglas Houghton and Henry Schoolcraft. Mason edited a number of other books and proceedings in addition to journal articles and presented over 50 papers at professional conferences and other gatherings. Through his suggestion, the Wayne State University Press established the Great Lakes Book Series on local and regional history with Mason as its founding editor. He also published on the development of labor archives, including Labor History Archives in the United States: A Guide for Researching and Teaching.

Archival education became an important part of his work at Wayne State University. Established in 1962, Wayne State’s Archival Administration program became one of, if not, the first such programs to surface. Through Mason’s numerous connections, he placed his students in positions throughout the United States and Canada. In addition, he hired many of its graduates to staff the archives at Wayne State University. His impact on these students was profound.

In reflecting on the impact of Mason’s leadership in Wayne State’s archival education program, former California State Archivist Nancy Zimmelman Lenoil, who is a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, remarked that, “What I did not realize when I started in the archives program was how fortunate I was to be at Wayne State and be one of Phil’s students. I also did not initially realize that I was enrolled in one of the best, if not the best, archives administration program[s] at that time.” Kathleen Roe, the former Archivist for the State of New York and former SAA President who is also a SAA Fellow, had this to say about Mason:

Phil has been an enduring inspiration, a source of guidance, and an incomparable example of what I see as ‘the best of archivists and the best of mentors.’ What I learned from him and from his example, his advice and his guidance continued to be relevant and critical literally throughout the full extent of my 40 year career in archives. For a teacher and mentor to provide a trusted and relevant presence for that length of time, and in the varying stages of employment and professional service is, I think, remarkable and indicative of his profound talent as educator, mentor, and role model.

Few archivists could boast of the contributions that Mason made to archival and related professional organizations. For example, he became a founder of the Michigan Archival Association and the Midwest Archives Conference. Of particular note, he served as the Secretary of the Society of American Archivists (1963-1968), followed by his presidency (1970-1971) of that organization. We cannot forget that he presided over that organization when it established what came to be known as the Committee of the 70s, which he chaired. This “Committee” led to the Society’s reorganization. He also assisted in the founding of the Michigan Oral History Association and the Oral History Association. In addition to these organizations, he was a founder of the North American Labor History Conference as well as the [Michigan] Local History Conference.

Consultancies became an important part of his work. Many of these consultancies were with labor organizations, a number of which donated their records to the Reuther Library based on his recommendations, although he also consulted with university archives, foundations, and state archives. Other consultancies included those regarding archival security, which followed his observations in the field and his work assisting the FBI in a case involving a number of archival thefts.

Mason was the recipient of a number of prestigious awards and honors, including that of SAA Fellow (1963), the Distinguished Graduate Faculty Award (1985), an award from the Michigan Association of Governing Boards (1985), the WSU Distinguished Professor of History Award (1990), the WSU President’s Exceptional Service Award (2001), and the Alumni Service Award (2005). In 2008 the U.S. Senate, through the office of Senator Carl Levin, honored Mason with a resolution, which appeared within the Congressional Record and he later received the Historical Society of Michigan’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2009).

In her reflections of Mason, his longtime assistant, Alberta Asmar, noted that,

Not only was he very conscious of the broader scope of the importance and necessity of building the reputation of the Reuther Library, but he was very connected to the role of the Reuther in the University community. He served on endless committees and was very involved in building the prestige of the University within and outside of the campus.

In the 1990 External Evaluation Report of the Reuther Library’s program, coming 2 years before his retirement as the Director of the Reuther Library, its authors echoed Asmar’s comments:

No discussion of the staff would be complete without some recognition of the leadership provided by the director of the archives, Philip Mason. Both the vision and the reality of the archives are largely his. He has not only been involved in local and state historical activity, but he has also been one of the most dedicated members of the archival profession. He has served on virtually every committee and held every elected office of the Society of American Archivists. He has also conducted a training program which has prepared literally hundreds of people who now serve in archival operations across the nation. His technique of providing records management training to donor unions has assured the archives of a continuing flow of significant historical records and has been a model for other institutions dealing with large organizations. And his success in fundraising has been phenomenal.

Following his retirement, Mason and his wife Marcia worked on a number of historical projects, including the founding of the Eagle River Museum in Michigan. In more recent years, he spent time between Eagle Harbor, MI, the Detroit Metropolitan area, and Arizona where he and Marcia settled before he passed on May 6, 2021. In addition to the staff of the Walter P. Reuther Library and the larger Wayne State University family, Mason leaves to mourn his passing, his wife Marcia Mason, 5 children, 9 grandchildren, 6 great grandchildren, a host of other relatives, as well as countless friends and colleagues. Both parents and one of three siblings preceded him in death.