When she was Dana Verdi, she worked for Ken Mason as a student, and now that she’s Dana Williams, she still works for him.
And while Dana’s name changed, Mason remained the same.
Which is why Williams is one of many in the Lawrence High community who will miss Mason once his retirement as Cardinals Athletic Director becomes official on Dec. 31. It’s a position he has held for 16 years, during which many positive changes were made at LHS.
Mason turns over the reins to Alyson Fischer, a former field hockey coach at Jackson High School who is currently an LHS vice-principal.
“I figured I’m nearing the end of the trail,” Mason said. “I’m not sailing into the sunset just yet, but there’s a lot of turnover, a lot of good young ADs coming in now. Johnny (Costantino) is doing a great job (taking Mason’s place as Colonial Valley Conference president).”
When Williams was a star athlete at Lawrence, she worked in the athletic office for Mason. She is now the Cardinals head girls’ basketball coach and former girls’ soccer coach.
“It’s pretty awesome—as a player he was real with you and as a boss, no different,” Williams said. “When I volunteered in the athletic office he was so patient with me, showing me as a high schooler how to schedule games, buses, referees, etc. It made me really respect all of the hard work that went into us playing every day and made me not take it for granted.”
None of that changed when Williams returned as a teacher and coach.
“His patience as a boss is incredible,” she said. “I still get the same attention and timeout. If I need help with anything he’ll take a break from one of the million responsibilities he has and say, ‘Sure, what’s up?’ He always has me sit down at his conference table so we can talk. He truly takes the time to hear you.”
Which is the key to being a successful athletic director—finding time when there is none. Time for coaches, athletes, parents, other athletic directors, officials or booster club members. You name it, and it’s in the email inbox or on voicemail.
Mason remained unflappable through it all.
“I never heard anyone say anything bad about him,” said 2013 Delaware Valley Football Official of the Year Tom Carr, who also referees basketball. “I know with the football and basketball officials he was always respected because he always treated both boards fairly.”
Williams cited Mason’s ability to find (or make) a friend anywhere he went.
“Ken is a boss that has a ton of experience in the Mercer athletic world and can have a conversation with everyone,” Williams said. “A referee, parent, the t-shirt guy. You name it, he can be their best friend.”
It takes a special person to handle so many worlds deftly, and Mason always had that quality.
“I’ve had a passion over the years, and still do, for high school sports,” he said. “I’m still with the Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey in my second year as president. I used to be an official. I’ll probably get back into that now.”
During his tenure at Lawrence, Mason was instrumental in bringing back freshman teams, adding B teams to the middle school (where he was also the AD), bringing in boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, hosting the Mercer County Swim Tournament and starting the popular LHS Athletic Hall of Fame.
But those are just the tangibles. According to former girls’ basketball coach and current golf coach Greg Zenerovitz, whom Mason hired in the spring of 2000, Mason’s influence can be seen through his coaches.
“Our coaches are some of the best in the county,” Zenerovitz said. “Too often a coach is judged by their win-loss record. Ken has always stressed to us the need to teach our players first and foremost the importance of being a good person, teammate, and the need to hold them accountable.”
And that extends beyond their tenure at Lawrence.
“Our coaches care about their players, and many have made them better people once they leave Lawrence,” Zenerovitz said. “Ken does not get the credit he deserves for this. The philosophy of doing the right thing is something that Ken stresses to us on a daily basis.”
It’s a philosophy Mason has lived by throughout his professional career. In an environment where there can be a lot of complaining—be it in his own school or across the county—Mason remained above the muck. He didn’t criticize people, nor was he criticized. People genuinely liked him and he liked them.
“Hopefully people look back and realize I think I ran a clean slate and program, and didn’t have a lot of issues,” Mason said of his legacy.
He was a soccer player at powerful Neshaminy (Pa.) High School before attending Bucks County Community College and Trenton State. His first job was as an interim physical education teacher at Lawrence for six months.
“I worked with (former Cardinal football coaches) Ed Shirk and Lenny Weister; they scared the heck out of me,” Mason said.
He left Lawrence for a full-time job in Hamilton Township, where he was a rotating phys-ed teacher for four elementary schools. In 1990 Mason moved to Hamilton West, where he taught while coaching football at nearby Nottingham. He also served as an assistant coach in soccer, baseball, track and ice hockey at Hamilton.
“I did half the sports out there in Hamilton,” Mason said. “That really helped prepare me for the AD job.”
In 1995 he became West’s athletic director and held the job for three and a half years before switching schools. His reasoning was that, at the time, Hamilton athletic directors were only paid for 10 months a year but still working all 12, whereas Lawrence treated it as a 12-month job.
Upon arriving at LHS, Mason had the added responsibilities of giving classroom observations for phys-ed teachers and running the middle school program. But he also had added help as Lawrence provided a secretary that Hamilton did not.
Mason inherited Marilyn Roman (mother of LHS soccer great Mickey Forker), who worked with former AD Harry Conover.
“She was great,” Mason said, “And Harry really helped lay the groundwork for me. He really helped me a lot. This was before everything was on computers so he had filing cabinets filled with stuff. There was a lot to deal with.”
Six years later, Cindy Dunn took over as athletic secretary and has been the unsung hero. Dunn, whose sons Jeff and Ryan played and coached football for Lawrence, is called by Mason “by far the hardest working secretary I’ve ever seen.”
“Cindy is basically the lifeline,” Mason said. “Nobody knows what these secretaries do. She confirms all the games, all the buses, all the officials. That gets lost. Every coach assumes they will go out there and a bus automatically shows up. If it wasn’t for her being there and double checking everything, there would have been problems.”
Dunn saw as much of Mason as anyone, on good days and bad. Their chemistry was part of the success.
“Ken and I worked well together and accomplished a lot and always tried to do the best for student athletes, coaches and programs,” Cindy said. “Ken was very fortunate to have a great staff to work with. Everyone was always willing to pitch in and help especially on rainy days. He always tried to see the big picture.”
Rainy days and snowy days are an AD’s worst nightmare, as they have to schedule and often re-schedule games due to inclement weather.
“There were some frustrating days,” Mason said. “When other people have the day off with the weather, ADs are dealing with rescheduling, calling officials, finding workers. Last year was historical with all the snow. People don’t understand what goes into a re-schedule, how many times you’re talking to a coach or administrators in the building. It’s a lot of frustration.”
Mason, however, wouldn’t trade it for anything. The pros far outweighed the cons in his mind. One of his proudest accomplishments was starting the Hall of Fame, which Mick Cimorelli has done an outstanding job of running over the past eight years.
“The Hall of Fame has been great for the school district, the community and the athletes of the past and present,” Zenerovitz said. “It has reunited many of the athletes from the past, as well as recognize the wonderful accomplishments that took place on our athletic fields. For someone like myself, who did not grow up in the area and has been involved in our athletics for the last 15 years, it really is inspiring to learn about the history of our programs and the wonderful athletes that Lawrence has had over the years and all that they have accomplished.”
One would hope Mason reaches that Hall of Fame. Whether or not that happens, Mason will always look back on his career as one through which he developed lasting relationships with coaches, players and everyone else involved in high school sports.
There were some great teams under his watch and some bad ones. He treated them all with respect and earned it back. And he did it without making it complicated.
“You have to go into it with an open mind and try to learn about what’s going on,” Mason said. “For people to go in and try to change the world, that’s not going to happen.”
Mason didn’t change the world of Mercer County sports. But he certainly made it a better world to live in.