Leaving the U.S. Army after eight years of active duty, 1st Sgt. Mason was accepted into the Presidential Protection Division of the Secret Service at the age of 28 in 1971. Mason was among the first classes of agents of color to join the mysterious men in black with dark glasses who protects the Commander-in-Chief and vice president.
The former military police officer during Vietnam served Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during his 17 years of service at the White House. He also served Vice President George Bush before Bush became the 41st President of the United States.
According to Mason, there is nothing easy about being in the Secret Service due to the high risk nature of the job, the constant pressure to stay alert and the absolute secrecy of his service.
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican, my job is to protect the president,” he said. “The fact is, you’re in danger just as much as anyone else if you don’t do your job. Here’s the name of the game: The president doesn’t carry a gun. I do. Anybody who wants to get to him has to come over me. So, I’m also protecting me.”
Instead of craving any adrenaline rush from his former job, Mason said, “I enjoy being out from under the pressure. By its own definition it is a high pressure job. That’s why they allow for early retirement.”
His least favorite duty was what Mason calls “the off-the-record moves.” This happens, he says, when no one is informed in advance and there is nothing on the schedule that the president is going somewhere.
“You’ve seen situations when people will say, ‘Oh, the president is in Baghdad — and nobody knew it? That is an off-the-record move. The immediate presidential staff is the only ones who really knew he was going — then the secret service.
“Even the press allowed to travel with them are called at the the very last minute and told to be at Andrews Air Force Base at such-and-such time. They’re not given any other information. None. They are not allowed to use phones or anything. You can’t send the president into an area with the bad guys being forewarned that he’s coming. They set up the security without ever telling anybody. Then he pops in. Now the public can know.”
“After you’re on the ground there, if there is a means of communication, they will allow you to communicate. Because now it’s going to be on the news.”
Mason said being on hand when President Carter met with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House on Sept. 17, 1978, to sign their historic peace agreement for the Middle East was a landmark in his career.
He also said meeting the Queen of England when she came to the White House was a special honor he would never forget. The Secret Service veteran even received a written document for special recognition when the Pope visited the White House on Oct.6-7, 1979.
As a Firearms Instructor for the Secret Service, Mason proved to be a distinguished expert in marksmanship and warns that while presidents often receive death threats, the Secret Service consider all such threats a matter of grave concern.
“They get threats all the time,” he said. “Sometimes the threats are benign. But what the Secret Service has to do is keep up with the intelligence and evaluate these things to determine whether these threats are real or perceived. If they get a threat, it’s checked out. If a person writes to the president and makes a threat in the mail — they will be talked to because that’s against the law.
Mason said disgruntled citizens have to be careful what they say, adding, “It’s not the matter of your disagreeing. You can disagree. But that disagreement can never take the form of a threat. Because you become a threat. And they will know where you are every time you move.
“If you lived in Chattanooga and you made a threat — even in a letter — and maybe they already interviewed you and determined you were upset and didn’t mean to say what you said, but you said it — you become a record. Every time the President is coming anywhere near Chattanooga they will know where you are.”
According to Mason, President Obama’s threats are likely no more than normal for any president but the former Secret Service agent said he prays nothing will happen to the first black president for fear of what it would do to the country.
“I totally disagree with him, but I pray that nothing happens to him because it would set America back 50 years,” he said.
Mason said of the four presidents he served, the one who made him feel most comfortable was President Reagan.
“Nixon was good but Reagan was really the best,” Mason said. “Reagan was unreal. Even if you didn’t like him — you liked him. And if you didn’t like his policies — you still liked him. I really liked him.”
Mason said whenever Reagan went out to California on his ranch, he’d bring a sizable contingent of Secret Service agents with him. He recalled one occasion when the agents were playing cards late one night around 1:30 a.m. There was a sudden knocking at their door. It was President Reagan who couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to awake Nancy.
“He said, ‘You guys mind if I come in, sit and talk with you?’ He sat down and played cards with us. He wasn’t a very good card player but he played cards with us. That’s the kind of person he was. He was as nice as he could be.”
When asked where he was on March 30, 1981, the day Reagan was shot, Mason said, “I was on my way home. We had a shift change. I was off duty.”
But upon hearing the news the dedicated agent said he turned his car around and ended up working 24 more hours before making it home. After eight years of active duty and 21 years in the Army Reserves, Mason attained the rank of sergeant major but retired early as a first sergeant.
He retired from the Secret Service on Nov. 4, 1988, on Election Day as Vice President George Bush became President-elect. After leaving the White House, Mason went back to school and earned his master’s in divinity to become an ordained minister.
“What people need to understand about the Secret Service is that you end up realizing, when you’re in that job with that high stress and have to be on your toes all the time, mortality becomes something you think about all the time,” he said.
“That’s what made me so aware there was something bigger than me going on. I was like everybody else. I knew the Lord when I was young. Then I got away from it. I was with the Secret Service when I got injured and rededicated myself.”
Mason said he was amazed to find out 13 out of 35 or 40 of his closest circle of friends in the agency retired to become ministers as well.
“That tells me that I wasn’t the only one who came face-to-face with mortality,” he said. “God has been good to me. My youngest daughter Michelle is 35. Sonja is 41. I don’t miss an opportunity to tell my family I love them everyday because no one knows which day might be our last.”
Happily married for the past 17 years to his wife Glenda, the Masons, impressed with the warm hospitality and serenity of the area, decided to live in Cleveland in 2004. The couple moved into their newly built home in March of 2006.
Between its friendly people and his longtime pastor and friend, Dr. T. L. Lowery, Mason said he and his wife loves Cleveland and believes their moving to the cozy town is a blessing and even providential.
Having an up close and personal perspective on everything from Watergate to Reagan’s historic speech on the fall of the Berlin Wall, this White House agent was there to see it all.
Much of what he saw and did remains classified, but Mason said he considers it a great honor to have served his country in such a distinct way in the Army and the Secret Service.