EL SOBRANTE -- With wisdom and love, retired De Anza High teacher Karen Mason inspired thousands of students and community members with lessons that extended far beyond her classrooms before she died.
"She always wanted peace for everybody in the world," said her husband, Tom Mason, after his beloved wife of 44 years died on New Year's Eve. "She just wanted peace and happiness. That was her great thing."
As Mason faced her diagnosis of terminal cancer over the past year, she often connected with her family and friends, who included many former students. In recognition of her contributions to the school and community, the West Contra Costa school district last month named the De Anza High language arts building Mason Hall in her honor.
"To her, that meant everything in the world because De Anza was her life for so long," Tom Mason said. "I remember one young man walked over and looked at Karen, and he started crying. He said, 'Ms. Mason, I never had you as a student, but I want you to know that you saved my life because you allowed me into your room.' Nobody had a dry eye. It was amazing."
During a November interview in her home with her husband and two former students, Mason lovingly referred to the community where she lived since she was 9 years old as a duck pond, where her message to treat everyone with kindness rippled from one person to another. She reminisced about hosting foreign exchange students and got teary-eyed when talking with the Rotary Club about a medical mission to the Philippines, where children were so poor they savored individually wrapped candies by licking them, then re-wrapping them to save for later.
"I like to think the Lord gave me the gift of a loving heart, so that's what I can give back to the world," said Mason, who was 67. "I used to tell my students, 'You have choices every day. Are you going to look for your best attitude?' It's really not hard to step across the path to kindness. What everyone gives back is the great gift."
She was known to some as "Mother De Anza" because she attended the school nearly 50 years ago, taught there for 35 years and sent two sons to the school before retiring. She continued substitute teaching after retirement and created memory boxes from the previous De Anza High inside the recently rebuilt new school.
During Mason's career, hundreds of students gathered in her classroom at lunch or turned to her for guidance as she taught English, journalism, debate and drama, advised the Rotary Interact Club and took students on trips to Washington, D.C.
"For me, the art of communication is what's really important -- whether you're speaking or whether you're writing the language," Mason said. "Words are so precious. They're so irretrievable. Once you say them, you can't get them back. I like to think I covered the gamut of all the language arts."
But Mason's lessons extended far beyond the walls of her classroom and her words of wisdom often permeated students' lives. Many of her former students have become teachers, due in part to her inspiration.
Janet Headington, one of Mason's former students who later became a teacher in the West Contra Costa district, called her mentor and friend a heroic powerhouse who enthusiastically helped others overcome obstacles.
"You bolster confidence," Headington told Mason in November. "It's being selfless. It's empowering. You've catapulted kids into any domain they want to go and they always feel valued. You're the greatest decimator of apathy. You have to care. You don't allow people to just flat-line."
Justin Jones, whom Mason taught during a long-term substitute stint at Hercules High, told the petite, soft-spoken woman he appreciated her willingness to take the load off by doling out hugs if he was having a bad day.
"One of the greatest lessons you taught me was what I call fearless compassion," Jones said. "I learned that if you love people, there's nothing to be afraid of, as long as you have the right intentions. And, don't be afraid to stand up."
Anka Lee, 33, said Mason stood up for him and his classmates by taking them to school board meetings to air grievances and helping them to find their voices, as they got involved in political issues. When he first met Mason, Lee said he was unsure of his command over the English language, since he had immigrated from Hong Kong two years earlier.
"She really batted for all of us and that came through in so many ways," said Lee, who now works as director of the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, D.C., with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "Her room -- Room 5 -- was known as campus central. What Karen gave me was, 'You can do it.' "
Mark Bish, who helped organize the Mason Hall dedication ceremony, said her speech at the Dec. 14 event demonstrated passion for reaching out to others.
"What stood out to me the most was that you matter to somebody," he recalled. "Just go out and do good every day and whatever you have in you to give, give it back."
Mel Otten, a former student who later taught alongside Mason, said she walked the talk.
"She was so willing to give to pretty much anyone at any time," said Otten, who now lives in Arizona. "If you could declare anyone mayor of El Sobrante or queen of El Sobrante, it would be her."
Name: Karen Mason
Hometown: El Sobrante
Claim to fame: Known as "Mother De Anza," Mason attended De Anza High nearly 50 years ago, taught on the campus for 35 years and was honored last month when the West Contra Costa school district renamed the language arts building after her. Mason died Dec. 31 and is being recognized posthumously as a Hometown Hero for her contributions to the El Sobrante community, which also included volunteer efforts, activism and running a small business with her husband, Tom.
Quote: "I like to think the Lord gave me the gift of a loving heart, so that's what I can give back to the world. I used to tell my students, 'You have choices every day. Are you going to look for your best attitude?' It's really not hard to step across the path to kindness. What everyone gives back is the great gift."
To see video clips of Mason and her former students, along with quotes from Mason and others she touched, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.
Who: Karen Mason
Born: Oct. 1, 1946, in Oakland
Died: Dec. 31 in El Sobrante
Services: Celebration of Karen Ewing Mason's life is at 11 a.m. Feb. 15 at El Sobrante United Methodist Church, 670 Appian Way in El Sobrante.
Donations: Donations may be made to De Anza High Rotary Interact Club scholarships at 5000 Valley View Road in Richmond or to Young Life of West Contra Costa County at P.O. Box 20822, El Sobrante, CA 94820.
Survivors: Husband Tom Mason of El Sobrante, son Brent Mason of El Sobrante, grandchildren Joey and Phoebe Mason of Vacaville, sister Ronna Eaton of Wheatland, brother Mark Ewing and sister-in-law Liz Ewing and nieces Tory, Callie and Hanna Ewing of Lake Tahoe.