In the Lake George region of New York, Jane M. Mason’s legacy lives on in her family’s stewardship of a thriving cottage-rental business and a memorial scholarship named for her and her husband, Alger.
Lesser known is Mason’s frightening 1951 rescue of her son’s 5-year-old friend from drowning in frigid, iced-over Lake George outside her house, a feat that earned her the Carnegie Medal and the victim’s enduring admiration. Although Mason, who died at age 77 in 1994, kept her medal on a living-room bookshelf while raising seven kids – and fostering two others – in Cleverdale, N.Y., she wasn’t particularly boastful about it. That’s not necessarily the case for Mason’s children.
“She was a wonderful lady that we all respected a great deal, but she was not someone who bragged about the event,” said son Steve Mason, 73, an attorney who now lives in Houston. “But we were all proud that she had the courage to do what she did.”
It was Steve’s friend, W. Reid Henderson, whom Mason saved from the bottom of the freezing lake on Feb. 21, 1951. Steve, then 4, was ice fishing with his grandfather – Mason’s father – and another man near the Mason family home. It was about 37 degrees at the time, around 2:15 p.m.
Reid, who lived nearby, stopped over to play with Steve. Mason later said that she suggested that Reid call out to Steve but not go onto the ice, partly because there was an opening about 2.5 feet wide and 150 feet long, which had been sawed to try to keep the ice from crashing into a dock.
While Mason, 33, tended to some tasks inside her house, Reid ventured onto the ice and entered the water, falling about 7 feet to the bottom. Looking outside, Mason no longer saw Reid and rushed out. Kneeling at the gap in the ice, she saw Reid, facedown. Although Mason was wearing a blouse, skirt, and shoes, she went into the water, too, submerging to grab him.
Later, she claimed not to have given any thought to the chilly conditions in the water.
“I was so excited I couldn’t tell whether the water was hot or cold,” the (Albany) Times-Union quoted Mason in a story published two days later. “My only thought was to get the boy out of the water before it was too late.”
Even after snatching Reid, who was motionless, she struggled to resurface, as her head struck the underside of the ice, 16 inches thick. Supporting the boy with one hand, she then felt along the ice until she returned to the opening, emerging with him.
Mason received help to get him and herself out of the water. The boy regained consciousness that afternoon but suffered convulsions for nearly an hour afterward, according to an April 1951 letter Reid’s father wrote to the Hero Fund in praise of Mason. Her family still has its own copy.
“Of course, the fact that this happened to our own child makes us perhaps somewhat prejudiced in our praise of Jane Mason, but after relating this incident to many, many people, we find that each and every one feels that she has demonstrated rare courage in the face of dangerous and unusual circumstances.”
Mason’s resolve stuck with Reid, too. Upon learning about her death, he wrote to another of Mason’s sons, John, to pay his respect.
“I think you know that your Mom was a special person in my life and I think you probably know that it goes beyond her saving me from drowning so many years ago,” wrote Henderson, who passed away in 1999. “For all of my childhood I had the advantage of being welcome in the extended Mason family and the older I get I realize the value of such precious memories.”
For Mason’s children, their memories of their parents include not only their advocacy for a good education – helping all of them graduate from college – but also Mason’s vital role in the couple’s business. Initially, they owned and ran Mason’s Cottages. Three years after the rescue, their vision expanded to include what is known in Cleverdale as the Takundewide community, which had its 65th anniversary last year.
Mason’s husband ran the construction side, building the homes, while she was the “financial brain,” her daughter, Lu Lucas said.
“In an era when many moms were stay-at-home moms, she was very much an entrepreneur, and that was unusual when I was growing up,” said Lucas, 65, now retired after having been senior vice president for commercial lending for a local bank.
The community now includes 32 homes, with some in private hands and others available for rent. Mason’s son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Lynne, both 64, operate the rental business, and live at Takundewide, as do Lucas, and another of Mason’s sons, Bob.
Bill earned a master’s degree in computer science, but he concedes that he never really wanted to leave the property to work elsewhere long-term.
“It’s priceless to me,” Bill said. “This is an amazing piece of property, and our family keeps coming back.”
— Chris Foreman, case investigator