MSU’s Mason remembered: ‘He knew what mattered’
East Lansing – He was still too young, too robust, too filled with vitality and, seemingly, so flush with days and years ahead, that Michigan State was no more prepared than family or friends to say goodbye to Ron Mason.
With acceptance and sorrow, it was left to an aching community Thursday to offer its best tribute to an extraordinary college hockey coach, athletic director, and MSU luminary who died in Monday’s early hours of a heart attack at age 76.
“I didn’t live with him, I didn’t play for him, I just used him as a role model,” said Spartans basketball coach Tom Izzo, who was one of eight people who eulogized Mason during a 70-minute service at Munn Arena, the site where much of a man’s legacy took flower during his 23 seasons as Spartans hockey coach.
Mason’s closed casket was crested in white roses and rested at what during hockey season would be center ice at Munn Arena. On one side of the rink his MSU colleagues, including Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio, were seated. At the opposite side sat family and friends, which included Mason’s wife of 53 years, Marion, as well as his daughters and two grandsons, each of whom offered eulogies.
Dozens of former players were sectored on the rink facing Mason’s casket.
Thursday’s atmosphere was elegant and respectful but hardly funereal. Visitation began at 11 a.m. and allowed family and friends to mingle as soft big-band music played in the background.
In the stands, fans numbering in the hundreds sat rinkside as if it were another of the 974 games Mason coached at Michigan State. The service began with United States and Canada national anthems, followed by a MSU band rendition of the Spartan Fight Song.
Matt Eldred, a director of music at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, and a former college (Bowling Green) and minor-league hockey player, sang “Amazing Grace” ahead of reflections by the service’s celebrant, Rev. Mark Inglot, also of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
MSU president Lou Anna Simon was out of town Thursday but forwarded a video tribute to Mason, whom she knew as a coach and from 2002-07 as the Spartans’ athletic director.
“He was an individual who felt that he could represent the values of the university beyond sports,” Simon said. “He felt that you needed to worry about people – what they were going to do today, and tomorrow.”
In a bow to Mason becoming AD at the university’s invitation when he could have surpassed the 1,000-victory mark and sealed his one-time status as college hockey’s all-time winningest coach, Simon said: “He put the interests of the institution before his records. That’s the kind of man Ron was.”
Ted Sator, a former NHL head coach with the Rangers and Sabres, was another who Thursday praised Mason’s zeal for working with young hockey players.
“He could have been a champion, too, in the National Hockey League if he’d chosen,” Sator said. “But Ron loved college hockey.”
Brian Gilmour, a retired Ontario high school principal and former hockey coach at McGill University in Montreal, first met Mason in the 1960s when Mason was coaching at Lake Superior State.
“Ron had a gift for making you feel so welcome and so at ease,” Gilmour said. “It always amazed me how he could invite people into his space and make everyone feel so equal.”
Another of Thursday’s speakers was Dave Carrier, who worked alongside Mason for decades as MSU’s hockey trainer. Carrier recalled a moment one season when he had suggested to Mason the boys could use some rest.
Mason went ahead with practice. Then, abruptly, he pretended the Spartans were rehearsing so badly he ordered them off the ice and home for the night.
“He winked at me,” Carrier recalled, “and said: ‘That work for you?’
“It was the Silver Fox at his best,” said Carrier, alluding to Mason’s platinum hair and moustache.
Steve Cady was Mason’s assistant during Mason’s days at Bowling Green, which preceded Mason’s move to East Lansing in 1979.
“Coach was one of the most competitive people on the planet,” said Cady, who is an associate athletic director at Miami (Ohio) University. “He still holds the record for the fastest drive from East Lansing to Toronto. Everything was competition for Ron.”
Mason’s grandsons, Tyler and Travis Walsh, toasted their grandfather with a litany of stories about fishing – Mason’s dedicated pastime – and exhortations only a grandfather who doubled as a coach could have etched.
The collective memories from all who celebrated Mason, Rev. Inglot said, were consistent with words from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, the spiritual theme for Inglot’s homily.
“He has competed well, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith,” Inglot said, applying Paul’s words to Mason’s life. “Ron finished the face, he kept the faith. He knew what mattered.
“Ron’s life was a life that mattered.”