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Fulfilling diplomatic career followed Bob Mason’s fine athletic days at RMC

October 29, 2014

One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they’ve been up to since graduation.

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

It seemed a pretty innocuous request at the time.

Bob Mason, Royal Military College graduate, was trade commissioner, the 2IC at the Canadian embassy in Kuwait that summer. “I was supposed to be in charge of the embassy in August,” he recalled. His vacation time was scheduled for July, but his daughter and son, who themselves were attending RMC at the time, wouldn’t be able to see him then, so he asked his boss if he could delay his vacation by a month and come to Canada in August instead.

“Do you mind if you and I are both away at the same time?” he recalls asking the ambassador, whose August vacation was already booked. “He said it shouldn’t be a problem. It’s very quiet there in the summer.”

It was 1990.

“Little did we know that Saddam Hussein was going to visit.”

Before he knew it, Mason, the former two-sport varsity star, was summoned to Ottawa to work on a task force and then he was on his way to Bahrain, to establish a temporary embassy where the Armed Forces would be putting their headquarters for Canada’s role in the Gulf War.

“It was interesting being the trade commissioner and doing all this war-related stuff when all my friends from RMC were leading the Canadian troops,” he said.

When the war ended, it was diplomatically imperative to re-establish the embassy in Kuwait as quickly as possible. “The war ended in the morning,” Mason said. “We flew in with a military jet in the afternoon.

“(The ambassador) said, ‘Bring a suitcase, you’re not coming back until it’s safe. When it’s safe, let me know and I’ll come back in.’ I was there for three weeks trying to get the embassy going again.

“That was the most interesting job I’ve ever done, because there were military people everywhere and I’d had the military experience. It was quite a fascinating part of my life.”

That says a lot, because Mason has had an extraordinary life, in a career that has taken him to Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Japan, Indonesia and the Middle East. It’s a long way from Bronte, Ont., a small town near Oakville that was surrounded by farmers’ fields when Mason left in 1963 to study at College Militaire Royal.

He was three years in St-Jean, Que., before he came to RMC to complete his studies in chemical engineering.

“I was a jock,” Mason says, without hesitation and not just a little bit of pride. At CMR he played basketball, was goalkeeper on the soccer team and did the horizontal jumps on the track team. He played football and basketball at RMC, was a league all-star in both, and was drafted to play football for the Toronto Argonauts after his senior year. “I never went to camp because I had surgery on my knee,” he recalled. “I don’t know exactly when it (happened) but I graduated from the college and went right to the hospital.”

An end on the football team, Mason set a school record for catching passes in his third year. “I can’t remember what it is because it was so long ago,” he said. “We had a good team in my third year but we were not as good in my fourth year.”

Hank Tatarchuk, now a member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, was coach of the basketball team at the time. At 6-foot-3, Mason, the Redmen’s centre—“today that would be guard size”—was a second-team all-star his first year and a first-team all-star his second year, when he was the second-leading scorer in the league.

“We had a good basketball team,” Mason said. “We were second in the league two years in a row (to Carleton). Carleton was a really good team.”

Mason recalled the night he set a record by scoring 50 points in a game against Macdonald College. “It didn’t last very long,” he said. “Dave Gorman at Carleton, a few days later, when he saw my record, he went out and got 60-something.”

Mason’s athletic endeavours took him down almost as many paths as his diplomatic career. As a basketball player, he later played on the city team in Ottawa, on a senior B team in Montreal and a club team in Japan, which, for two years in a row, he helped propel to the national championship there. He played squash—his father, James Mason, was a national-team coach and is enshrined in the Ontario Squash Hall of Fame—and he played rugby for the Hong Kong sevens, in international matches against Canada and Australia.

At the age of 19, Mason’s brother, Martin, was the Ontario Amateur golf champion in 1966, the last year the title was contested in match-play format. “He was my younger brother and by the time he was 14 he was beating me,” Mason said. “My claim to fame is I was his caddy.”

Did he give him any good advice?

“All the time.”

Mason continues to be an avid golfer. He divides his time between Ottawa and Melbourne, Australia, in his wife’s homeland. He’s a member of clubs in both places and in Australia, his home course, the Kew Golf Club, is the same one where his grandfather was club champion in 1901 and 1904. “You don’t understand golf until you go to Australia,” he said. “They’re very competitive.”

But he never played football again.

“Yes and no,” he said, asked if he regretted not being able to take advantage of the opportunity to play professionally. “I managed to get first-class honours when I graduated and I had scholarship opportunities to three places: Columbia, Virginia and the University of Toronto. A good friend of mine also had a scholarship to the University of Virginia so we went down to Virginia together.

“If I had not had surgery, I had the option to go to the University of Toronto and I would have tried out at that time, but I was still in the military so it was hard to do things (outside of that). I was disappointed that I couldn’t do it from a how-would-I-have-done perspective. It was the Bobby Taylor era and the Argos were not bad at that time, but I don’t regret not going because I went down to Virginia and I found out two things: I didn’t like engineering, after six years of it, and I met my wife.”

The future Janette Mason was from Australia, and she was completing an exchange nursing program in Charlottesville. “She had been away for two years, and was just going home,” Mason said. “We met and she never got home. We’ve been married 47 years now.”

When he came back to Canada, Mason fulfilled his commitment to the Armed Forces in Ottawa. “I was not very pleased with what I was doing,” he said, so he decided to leave the service and pursued his MBA at McMaster, where he came first in his class.

That led him to the federal Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce, part of a group that was helping Canadian companies export defence equipment. At that time, Canada and the U.S. had a defence-production sharing agreement, whereby defence contractors in the U.S. had to employ a certain amount of Canadian content. Mason’s job was to help Canadian firms gain access to that segment of the market.

That group became part of the Canadian Trade Commissioner’s Service, which eventually morphed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. In his work there, he spent almost 22 years outside the country, about half of it in Japan.

“I enjoyed Japan,” he said, “even though I’m tall.

“I joke that I went to Japan at 6-3 and came back 6-2, because I kept hitting my head on the doors all the time.”

Part of language study there was finding ways beyond the classroom for students to apply what they’d learned. That led instructors to discover Mason’s interest in basketball and that led him to helping to coach a university women’s team, and playing with the team at the local YMCA. Being part of a club in Japan, he explained, “is a lifetime commitment.”

“I’m still with those guys today, 40 years later. One person who joined the club at the same time I did, every time we go to Japan, I stay at his house.”

Mason said he has fond memories of the college.

“I miss RMC a lot. The main thing was the sports, going out, travelling, on a Friday getting on the bus, playing on a Friday night or a Saturday. When I was a prep, I liked it because I missed a lot of parades. Marching was not my forte.”

He said the structure of the college gave him athletic opportunities he may not have enjoyed at a civilian university, but there was one part of the regimen of which he was not enamored.

“Your classes were between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.; 4 p.m. to 7 o’clock was practice time. Then you came back and you had your meal,” he said. “I remember we had a special room we used to go and eat, but whenever they had spaghetti, I hated it. They made it for 4 o’clock and by the time you got there at quarter to 7 it had been sitting in the water for two and a half hours. It was not the nicest spaghetti.

“I never ate spaghetti for years afterwards.”

Mason recalled his third year at the college, when football ended one Saturday and he played his first basketball the following weekend. A week and a half after that he began a stretch of 12 exams in 13 days.

“I found that the most difficult period, those Christmas exams,” he said. “After basketball season would end in March, you had a month and a half before the exams, so you finally had a chance to study and find out what you were really doing, rather than cramming the night before.

“All I know, at the military college, there’s a lot of cramming. Everybody was the same, because we were so busy.”

Mason retired in 1990, after 37 years of public service. “When I retired I said, ‘I used my brain a lot and now I want to use my hands.’” To that end, he and his son began renovating homes in Ottawa, and he later undertook to do one in Australia.

With a father who was half Spanish and a wife who’s Australian, Mason said it wasn’t difficult to adjust to living abroad, but the irony of having moved 26 times is not lost on a man who chose the foreign service after leaving the nomadic life of the Armed Forces shortly after graduating from RMC in 1966.

“It was hard because you had to adjust each time but it was also exciting,” he said. Mason lamented that his children didn’t have the opportunity to establish childhood friendships. “They don’t have the continuity with friends that you have forever.

“It’s the same with our lifestyle. Our friends are within the service and from RMC, rather than friends you’ve made because you lived next door to the person for 25 years or you’ve known somebody at work for 40 years. We know people from work, but one guy goes to London and another guy goes to Paris, so you see them for two years in one place, but you don’t see them again for 30 years. It’s a different type of lifestyle.

“For most people in the military that is a lifestyle problem. You make sacrifices. Do you go for the promotion? Or do you go for staying in a place? That’s the one hard part of military life but most of the people who have gone through RMC have the aptitude to adjust and adapt.”

All of Mason’s children followed him to military college. Mason’s daughter, Elizabeth, graduated from RMC in 1991 in the same class as her husband, Darryl Nicholson. A varsity water polo player, she was an aeronautical engineer at Uplands in Ottawa but they now live in Portland, Ore.

A son, Peter, now a major, graduated from CMR in 1992. A finance officer, he was recently posted from Kingston to Ottawa. Rob, an all-star rugby player who graduated in 1998, is also a major, an army engineer stationed in Ottawa who is working on a Masters at RMC.

Notwithstanding the demands on a varsity athlete, Mason says the best education a person can receive is from a military college. “Look at the number of people from military colleges who have done well in life,” he said.

“People say, I don’t have enough time to do things, but you make time. You learn, you don’t spend all your time doing something over and over again. You have to do it once and do it right. The military college taught you leadership skills. You couldn’t graduate from the college without leadership skills, or if you weren’t physically fit. We had a cadet in third year, two and a half years at the college, and he was let go because he couldn’t pass the physical fitness exams.

“You have to be physically fit, you have to be academically fit, you had to be bilingual and you had to show leadership, how to handle yourself. I don’t find that in most universities.”

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