You can try to keep up with Wayne Mason, but you’ll fall behind. Even at 82, Mason is a human calculator, solving problems in his head with a nimble precision that’s almost uncanny.
His mind shines. You can see it in his eyes. They are alive and bright as he speaks in a swift torrent that puts you on the edge of your seat trying to catch every last syllable.
Mental acuity aside, Mason himself is hard to keep up with. If you look at all he’s done in his eight decades in Gwinnett County, he’s also a tough act to follow.
If you know anything at all about the man, a proper place to start the story seems like the 1960s, when he and his brother, Jimmy, began building homes in Snellville – over time, bringing thousands of residents to the city. Or, perhaps during his public service as county commissioner in the 1970s, when he and Jimmy – a state legislator at the time – spearheaded projects that paved the way for important improvements in Gwinnett County’s infrastructure.
But no. We’re going further back:
It’s Saturday morning in Atlanta’s affluent Morningside community. It’s the wintertime, and it’s freezing out. Wayne, a teenager, sells eggs to customers on a regular route.
He isn’t permitted to knock at front doors, so he goes around back. It makes Wayne feel “like white trash,” but it doesn’t stop him as he knocks at the back door of a massive home.
A homeowner swings open the door. She tells Wayne how many eggs she wants: three dozen. Wayne moves in a flurry. He palms three eggs per hand, knowing as he chitchats and tells her the total (at 75 cents a dozen, she owes him $2.25) that if he moves his hands six times, he’s given her three dozen eggs. He’s perfected this trick.
The customer smiles, handing Wayne the money and something else. It’s a Christmas gift, she says – a pair of gloves. He gratefully accepts with a smile, knowing he’ll sell them at school for whatever he can get. He can’t count eggs this way while wearing gloves.
THREE AND A HALF HOURS OF SLEEP
When Wayne Mason was 12 years old, his father, James Winston Mason, gave him $10. It was the last time his father would have to give him money. By the time Wayne graduated high school, he had $1,750 in the bank.
He made money doing just about anything that would earn him a buck. In addition to selling eggs, he worked at a local grocery store; plowed neighbors’ gardens behind a mule; made and sold Christmas wreaths; and sold parts and service station supplies wholesale.
The 1958 South Gwinnett yearbook would later contain a photo of the graduate with an appropriate and prophetic one-liner: “I don’t like money, but it does calm my nerves.”
Mason finished high school in three years, having procured enough of the green stuff to finance his own private teachers over the summer break. He did this in order to graduate with the class he started with – having been held back in first grade for what would later be determined to be dyslexia.
Upon graduating, Mason took a job with his uncle, painting houses in the Sagamore Hills area of Atlanta – near Clairmont and Lavista roads. He would soon thereafter accept a sales position at Goodyear, hustling so hard that by 1959 he was the company’s top salesman for the southern region.
It was around this time, he and his brother, Jimmy – who’d just returned from the Korean War – partnered up.
From Wayne’s work with his uncle painting houses, he’d become familiar with the many varied types of tradesmen who banded together, pooling efforts to build a home.
“When I started building, I knew I could hire all those guys – the brick masons, painters, carpenters, floor layers … It was a fast crew,” Wayne says. “So, at that time I was pretty busy. I was building houses, running a ceramic tile business, a bonding business and working for Goodyear … I’d sleep three and a half hours a night.”
Wayne adds: “I did that for a long time. I could make it on that. See, I was trying to accumulate. I’ve been in every kind of business you can think of … you name it, I been in it. Everything’s not going to be a success, but you have to take a chance.”
In the midst of this youthful frenzy and ambitious phase, he married Ann Biggers on Sept. 5, 1959. A year later, they had their first son, Keith Mason.
By 1961, Wayne and Jimmy’s housebuilding efforts – concentrated mostly in Snellville – had become so successful that Wayne quit his fulltime job at Goodyear. They were making more money than they could believe.
Regarding this period, Mason reflects, offering a related thought: “You appreciate what you’ve got if you made it yourself.”
WASN’T NO DISSENSION
In 1963, Jimmy joined his brother full-time in the housebuilding business – a profession they’d continue for the next decade or so. They built hundreds of single-family homes, which would lead to a population explosion for the town of Snellville.
Shopping centers, hospitals, schools and churches began to appear – matching the needs of a Snellville population that would grow more than 200 percent during this phase.
Gwinnett County resident Richard Tucker, who started working for Wayne in 1971, recalls that he was “driven to be successful and always has been.”
Adds Tucker: “The great thing about Wayne, he’s always been willing to share the wealth so to speak. He’s always looking for partners, looking for opportunities for others. Just a really good businessperson and a civic-minded individual.”
After much success building homes in the area, the Mason Brothers transitioned their ambitions to buying land. In 1972, Wayne and Jimmy struck gold with some of the land they owned. A plot making up several hundred acres was purchased by Summit Chase Golf Club. It made them more than a million dollars.
It was also around this time that Wayne led his first successful bid for public office. After an initial failed attempt in 1968 to secure enough votes, Wayne Mason was elected in 1972 to the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners. He was 32 years old.
At the same time, his brother was working his way up the ranks of public office, having started as a Snellville City Councilman and then getting elected as a state legislator.
In their aspirations, the brothers had something in common: they wanted to see Gwinnett County keep getting better and better. Both used their positions as a means to do just that. For Wayne, seeing the county get decent water service was the very reason he ran for commissioner in the first place.
“(In the south end of the county) You’d have to get up at 6 in the morning to take a shower,” Wayne says. “If you didn’t, you was out of water or there was no pressure. Same thing in the afternoons. That’s one of the big reasons I ran (for office) – to set up the water and sewer authority.”
Over the next several years, Wayne and the commission worked to fund projects through the water and sewer authority, as well as a water intake for Lake Lanier, establishment of the public facilities authority, recreation authority, a uniform business license system and more. In short, they worked together to lay extensive infrastructural and procedural tracks to keep Gwinnett County growing.
“I had a great board of commissioners,” Mason says. “I had the confidence of the board. If we came up with something that was good for the county, it was unanimous. Always unanimous. Wasn’t no dissension. I never served with a single person on the board of commissioners who would put being elected over doing what was good for the county.”
Adds Mason: “Today, there’s so much regulatory stuff and so much government, it takes longer to get a permit than it does to do the actual project. You can build a multistory building quicker than you can get a damn permit. Too much bureaucracy.”
While Mason served on the Gwinnett County commission, the county also paved 800 miles of roads and graded 400 miles in eight years. Mason knew the growth was coming, but laments that he underestimated the amount of traffic the county would one day attract.
“I would have built a lot more multilane roads,” he says.
Mason and his board of commissioners did a lot during this time, building infrastructure and attracting growth, but if there was one thing that stood out – arguably Mason’s most impactful contribution – it was his efforts in the development of Gwinnett County’s water and sewer systems.
WATER ‘PURE ENOUGH TO SHOOT IN YOUR VEINS’
For three consecutive years – 1986 through 1988 – Gwinnett County ranked as the fastest-growing county in the United States among counties with a population greater than 100,000.
That kind of growth never would have been possible without the ground laid by Mason and the board of commissioners who served with him in the 1970s. One of their biggest achievements was expansion and improvement of the county’s water and sewer.
Getting approval from the state legislature for a water and sewer authority as well as a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pull water from Lake Lanier were two key factors in solving Gwinnett’s water woes.
Having Mason’s brother, Jimmy, on the state legislature sure didn’t hurt, as he knew the ropes at the state level.
Jimmy Mason’s daughter, Tracey Mason, says her father and Uncle Wayne “were the right people at the right time with the right skills” to move Gwinnett County forward.
“When you put the two of them together in a room there was nothing they couldn’t get accomplished,” Tracey says. “Whenever I used to ask them how they were able to achieve all that they did, they just told me, ‘nobody ever told us we couldn’t, so we just did it.’”
During Wayne’s service as a commissioner from 1972-1976 and as chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners from 1977-1980, he helped secure critical funding for major water and sewer improvements.
Getting an intake to draw water from Lake Lanier for Gwinnett meant Mason needed a consultant who knew what they were doing.
“There was a guy who was a colonel in the Army. Harold Dye. He knew someone who ran the Corps of Engineers out of Mobile,” Mason says.
When Dye agreed to the job, Mason sought the fellow commissioners’ approval, paid Dye $15,000 and sent him on Mason’s private plane to Mobile, Ala.
“I knew that whoever controlled water controlled the destiny of this whole area,” Mason says, adding that because of the research they’d done “we knew what level to take the water at where it’d be pure enough to shoot in your veins.”
Gwinnett County got its permit to remove more than 200 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier and shortly thereafter borrowed $44 million in water and sewer authority bonds to upgrade the system.
The system, to this day, is one of the best in the world, according to some reports – pulling and cleaning water from the lake; returning wastewater to streams even cleaner than it was when taken from Lake Lanier.
“As long as you don’t care who gets the credit, it’s unbelievable what you can accomplish,” Mason says, recalling the efforts decades ago of himself and fellow commissioners. “In those days, we all had one common interest: We wanted Gwinnett to be great.”
LET SOMEBODY ELSE EAT
Despite dogged devotion to his work and all he did to help build Gwinnett, at the end of the day Mason says he never once forgot the importance of spending time with his family.
His only son, Keith, agrees.
“To my dad, family is first and foremost. If someone is related to him he tries to help them in any way possible,” Keith says, adding that his father was a supporter of his children no matter what path they decided to take in their lives or careers.
“My dad never told any of his children what they should do … he was always a quiet backer, but he was never one to micromanage his children in their lives. He was more of a cheerleader than a micromanager. He always supported everything I did but he never said to me, ‘you need to do this, not that.’ He would answer questions and provide advice … but he wanted you to do what you wanted to do.”
Keith says his father was also a supporter of the community at large.
“It was part of his upbringing,” Keith says. “He was brought up in a family in which you support your community. He knows you need to give back to keep going forward.”
Keith’s cousin and Wayne’s niece, Tracey, echoes the remarks.
“It’s a family tradition to serve the community,” Tracey says. “I was always told – and shown – that you have to give something back. You gotta leave the world a better place.”
Adds Tracey: “Uncle Wayne has always been dogged in his pursuit to make a deal, but he is generous almost to a fault.”
Being charitable is built into Wayne Mason’s belief systems, both politically and morally.
“I tell everybody, ‘Listen, after you eat all you need to eat and your family eats all they need to eat, then, hell, let somebody else eat. Don’t be so damn greedy,’” Wayne says.
Keith says his father’s charity is extensive: from donating land for churches to helping various charitable causes to helping establish parks, little league ball fields and raising money for K-12 schools and colleges.
One of the contributions he’s most proud of is a land deal he and son, Keith, partnered up on. In 2004, Wayne purchased a narrow swath of abandoned railroad land that would become the first leg of the Atlanta Beltline.
“I spent millions, brought in a consultant, laid out the plan and (former mayor) Shirley Franklin was great,” Mason says.
Son, Keith, says: “We like to say that he made it possible to buy it, and I made it possible to get it sold. I negotiated the sale and (my father negotiated) the purchase … there was a lot of other activity in between, but that (deal) was the catalyst for the whole project … it was only an idea when we purchased it. Buying it confirmed it could be a reality.”
Wayne keeps a framed front page from the Atlanta Business Chronicle in his office showcasing the story.
This deal, like many in Wayne’s career, was a gamble that paid off.
“I’ve been up and down … but you gotta take chances,” Wayne says. “My theory has always been the same – I can’t lose anything because I never had anything to start with.”
I CAN RUN NUMBERS IN MY HEAD
It’s summertime on a Saturday afternoon in a Centerville country store. Young teenager Wayne Mason sacks groceries while a colleague works an adding machine, tallying the cost of a customer’s groceries. The boy working the adding machine taps out the prices with precision. He turns a crank on the device to add the numbers together. It’s a noisy little contraption.
The clack clack clack of the adding machine echoes as the customer waits patiently. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Mason eyes the produce, the dry goods, the grains, the candies and in a flash knows the total. He tells his colleague how much to charge the customer before the other boy’s able to finish punching numbers.
Nobody understands how this South Gwinnett country boy can do this trick, but the kid seems brighter than most to those who meet him. And he seems to have a drive about him. To ‘accumulate’ as Wayne might say in his own words. He only makes 50 cents an hour sacking groceries at this little Centerville country store, but 50 cents an hour adds up in the summertime, when he can put in 80 hours a week.
Wayne laughs, recalling the scene.
“Yeah, I can run numbers in my head. Always been good at math, even if spelling wasn’t my thing,” he says, chuckling.
It’s been a long time since he worked at that store, and he’s made a lot of deals, built a lot of homes, met a lot of people, inked a lot of contracts, worked more jobs and started more businesses than you could imagine.
Whether it was selling eggs in wealthy Atlanta neighborhoods or making decisions that would benefit Gwinnett County residents for generations to come, the young man from south Gwinnett has one thing about him that remains unchanged, even at 82.
It’s still hard to keep up with Wayne Mason.