Life With Doc

By Allen Dale Olson

One Sunday afternoon, I heard the doorbell as well as my wife hustling to answer it. She opened the door, let out a shriek, and just before she shut it, I saw a man hurrying down the stair case calling up to her that he’d be back for dinner tomorrow. She was holding a canvas bag containing a newly-shot pheasant and said it was Dr. Mason who had been hunting and brought the pheasant for dinner tomorrow evening.

Such was life in Karlsruhe, Germany, with Dr. Joseph A. Mason, Director of the United States Dependents Schools, European Area (USDESEA) in the mid-1960s till his death in 1979. You just never knew what to expect next. Probably no one got to know “Doc” (as we called him so he would have a title like the military officers with whom we worked) better than I did during those years. For most of his tenure, USDESEA was the tenth largest American school system with an enrollment roughly the size of that of St. Louis. Its 200 schools covered an area two-and-a-half times the size of the Continental United States, extending from the Persian Gulf to Sub-Saharan Africa to Scotland and Norway, to Spain and Sicily, and throughout Germany.

When he began his overseas career in 1956, the dependents schools in Europe consisted of three separate systems each operated by a military department and whose Director (Superintendent) reported directly to a senior military officer. Doc came from Skokie, Illinois, to organize the system run by U.S. Air Force, Europe. The Army had had a system in Europe since 1946, and in the beginning years there was little interaction among the three services. Shortly before his death, USDESEA was transferred to the Defense Department, essentially removing military officers from the school chain of command, and was re-organized into smaller districts – Germany North and South, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean – under the name DoDDSEUR (Department of Defense Dependents Schools, Europe).

In the mid-sixties, a series of political decisions, with the backing of the North Central Accrediting Association, merged the three systems into one under the Army’s European Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Personnel, a two-star general. (The dependents schools systems in the Pacific Theater were assigned to the Air Force and in the Atlantic Theater to the Navy.) While the merger was in transition, Doc returned from an AID assignment in Africa to lead the newly-merged European system and establish its administrative relationships with the three services and their families and schools in what became USDESEA.

It was Doc who worked out the various memoranda of understanding by which Air Force and Navy would reimburse Army for school and school support activities on their bases. USDESEA assumed responsibility for certifying the validity of education programs in private and  international schools for DoD students living in locations where there were no DoD schools, extending USDESEA’s reach to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, and places between and around.

Doc’s impact is still felt in the DoD schools. At each location there is a school advisory council and advisory councils at each administrative level, from the district to the Senior Commands, to DoD. There are teacher union representatives on all curriculum committees and binding contracts with both teachers’ unions.

But for all of his leadership and management influence, Dr. Mason avoided political  involvement and chose his appearances in the media very judiciously. He participated in most public meetings affecting the schools – the European PTSA, for example – but worked hard at keeping out of the limelight. Consequently, there are few documents, press accounts, major studies, and reports that bear his name.

By the way, with the help of a neighborhood butcher, the pheasant dinner was a great success.

Dr. Olson worked directly for Dr. Mason from 1967 to 1979 as liaison to the Army, as Executive Officer, and as Coordinator for School-Community Relations.

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