- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
She waited near the window. Crisp suit. Soft smile. Softer voice.
LaVonne Mason had arrived at the South Congress Avenue eatery more than 20 minutes before her scheduled interview.
“I learned always to get there early,” says the former Texas Woman’s University regent, Austin Area Urban League co-founder and creator of the Etiquette Authority. “Making a good impression is very important. That could make or break you.”
Speaking with considerable precision, Mason explains why she recently started teaching etiquette from her home.
“Our children and youth today are missing out on social skills that will move them forward professionally as well as socially,” she says. “It seems etiquette is a lost art. I wanted to see if I could make a difference if I had the opportunity.”
Mason, 69, has been making a quiet, determined difference all her life. That includes her large part not only in establishing the Austin Area Urban League — which promotes employment readiness, affordable housing, health and wellness — but her more recent role helping to rejuvenate its guild.
The league’s annual formal dinner is Friday at the AT&T Center.
Mason was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area. Her father was a construction contractor, her mother a teacher. Mason fell, chronologically, in the middle of five children.
“I had two role models ahead of me,” she says. “I learned a lot from them. I was pretty much nonconfrontational. Easy to get along with. Very sociable. Very frank. Told things the way that I saw them. Selected my words very carefully so I wouldn’t offend anyone, but I would tell the truth.”
Mason did well in and out of the classroom as part of the college prep program at Dunbar High School in D.C. That training spilled over into classes at Howard University, an historically black school located in her hometown. Mason worked as a recreation specialist while she studied, first, home economics, then early childhood education. Much later, she earned a graduate degree in guidance and counseling at Prairie View A&M.
At Howard, she met Norman Mason, a promising dental student from Texas.
“He proposed very early in our courtship,” Mason says. Before the wedding, however, they engaged in a long, measured negotiation about what that marriage would mean. For instance, they chose their future city by carefully considering places that were growing, stable and could promise nice weather.
Austin won out. The couple moved here in 1970.
“We were risk takers, and we wanted to leave a cold climate,” she says. “In order for this union to work, we had to get away from both sets of families. We needed to establish traditions of our own, just like our parents did.”
It helped that Austin’s established medical and educational leaders welcomed the Masons to town. Dr. Mason joined a thriving practice on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where he still works.
Among the couple’s prenuptial agreements: That his wife would not work outside the home, except volunteering or serving on charity boards.
“That’s exactly what I did,” she smiles. “But that got old.”
The Masons got to know future Gov. Mark White volunteering on his campaigns for various offices. As governor, White appointed Mason as the first regent of color for Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
“I made lots of changes,” she says. While her style was not confrontational, she encountered plenty of opposition. “I told my husband: If I don’t get back here in time, call the state troopers.”
Before her first meeting, Mason met with top higher education officials and carefully studied the university’s books. She kept mostly quiet her first year in office, but urged Texas Woman’s to recruit in Central Texas and to rebuild its alumni program here, taking the lead personally.
“I didn’t want to glory in being a regent,” she says. “I wanted to be an effective regent.”
She learned a lot spending time on campus.
“I wanted to find out the satisfaction level of the students,” she says. “I did not see much diversity among the faculty and staff. I was grateful to be part of an exemplary university. I did not want to be perceived as the regent fighting for African-American causes. I said: I am here to represent all ethnic groups, and thus I felt we should have faculty and staff from all of them.”
As was often the case 30 years ago, the university’s leaders claimed they couldn’t find qualified candidates of color. Mason provided a list of agencies that could help and also urged leaders to grow their own.
Before serving as regent, in 1977, Mason had joined an organizer, the Rev. Freddie Dixon, and others creating an Urban League chapter here.
“I was always community oriented,” she says. “I came from a family of movers and shakers when it came to making a difference for others.”
Her brother, Walter C. Pierce, was, for instance, a much-honored community activist in Washington’s Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
From the beginning, the Urban League’s membership here fell out about one-third white, one-third Hispanic, one-third African-American.
“We wanted it to reflect Austin,” Morgan says. “We had broad support throughout the city. It’s always been a passion of mine because it empowers communities and changes lives.”
Morgan also organized and led the Town Lake Chapter of the Links Inc., first inviting 24 civic-minded women to her home June 8, 1986, to discuss public service.
The Masons raised two sons, Michael and Mark, and remain members of Wesley United Methodist Church. When LaVonne Mason retired from the Texas Education Agency as a program specialist two years ago, she looked for another way to make a difference.
So she took courses at the American School of Protocol in Atlanta and launched the Etiquette Authority in January. Her first class of girls met at her house on six Sunday evenings. She covered social skills, introductions, table manners, fine dining and writing thank-you notes.
“It builds self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence,” she says of etiquette. “In today’s increasingly competitive society, people who are able to handle different social situations with confidence have greater potential achieving their lifelong goals.”
She insists, with reason, that polite people are noticed.
“They stand out from others,” she says. “Their manners shine!”