SAA Remembers Philip P. Mason


The following was adapted from an “In Memoriam” appearing on the Walter P. Reuther Library website.

Founding director of the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University, SAA Fellow, and SAA past president Philip Parker Mason, 94, who passed away on May 6, 2021.

Following his WWII service in the Navy, Mason entered Boston University where, with the help of the G.I. Bill, he received a BA in history in 1950. He continued his education at the University of Michigan, receiving both master’s and doctoral degrees in history (1951 and 1956). His work at the Bentley Historical Library during his studies convinced him to pursue a career in archives. While still working on his doctorate, he took the position of Archivist for the State of Michigan. Thereafter, he was appointed director of the University Archives at Wayne State University (WSU) with a joint appointment in the Department of History. He would remain at WSU for the duration of his 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 toward 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 and 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.

A prolific author, Mason’s eclectic publications include books on 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. He edited a number of other books and proceedings in addition to journal articles and presented more than 50 papers at professional conferences and other gatherings. At 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 with establishment of the archival administration program there in 1962. SAA Fellow and former California State Archivist Nancy Zimmelman Lenoil noted, “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.”

SAA Fellow and past president Kathleen Roe, who is also the former Archivist for the State of New York, 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.”

Mason was a founder of the Association of Canadian Archivists, the Michigan Archival Association, the Midwest Archives Conference, the Michigan Oral History Association, and the Oral History Association. He was named a Distinguished Fellow of SAA in 1963, served as its secretary from 1963 to 1968, and was elected its 26th president in 1970–71. In that role, he chaired the “Committee of the 70s,” which led to SAA's reorganization. Read his presidential address, “The Society of American Archivists at the Crossroads,” in American Archivist 35, no. 1 (January 1972). Mason was influential in SAA's efforts to create the position of executive director, replacing the secretary role. 

In the 1990 External Evaluation Report of the Reuther Library’s program, which came two years before his retirement as its director, the authors made the following 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.”

Mason is survived by his wife Marcia, five children, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

The Society of American Archivists invites you to share your remembrances of Phil Mason below.

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