Ex-FBI agent drives special needs children
Mike Mason is used to big jobs with plenty of responsibility. After all, he was the number-four man at the FBI, and later a senior vice president with Verizon, handling its security issues on a global level.
But his post-retirement gig is perhaps the most significant of all: driving a school bus for Chesterfield County Schools. It’s work he loves and considers as important as his past careers.
“In this job, I start each day with a happy heart,” Mason, 63, said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
After 23 years in the FBI, he left in 2007, feeling he needed a change. Not ready to retire, he took the job with Verizon as chief security officer. When he left there in December 2020, he still wanted to “turn the page” and try something new.
When he saw a news story this past January about a shortage of school bus drivers, Mason thought that could be what he was looking for.
Loves working with kids
You see, Mason, who lives in Midlothian, is the father of two grown sons: Mathew is a state trooper in Washington State, and Ben is a captain in the Marine Corps.
The proud father says, “My boys mean the world to me, and I have always wanted to do more work with kids” (though he attributes their success to their mother, Susan, a “wonderful woman”).
So he applied for a bus driver job and was hired by Chesterfield County. He then went through a training program to obtain his commercial driver’s license and learn how to manage a big yellow bus.
However, he said, “The real learning for me began when I started to work with the children.” In part, that’s because Mason’s passengers are all special needs youngsters.
As he puts it, “I have had to learn new ways to communicate, to find out what makes them sad, what makes them happy, how to relate with them, sometimes without language.
“Working with these kids, understanding them, has increased my capacity for empathy exponentially. What I enjoy most is making breakthroughs.”
Tough childhood, but strong values
Mason grew up in a one-parent, low-income family in Chicago. While attending a Catholic high school there, he worked in a grocery store, mowed lawns, pumped gas and washed cars.
When he graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Throughout his youth, Mason was taught that he was meant for higher things. He was close to his father, who worked hard as a truck driver for the Chicago board of education.
Although his mother was absent, his grandparents spent a lot of time with him and had a big impact on making him the person he became, he said.
Mason learned about honesty from his grandfather. The two of them went fishing one day, and Mike caught a northern pike, a tough fish to land. He was immensely proud of that catch and could not wait to show the fish to his friends.
But the legal length for a catch was 18 inches, and this fish was just shy of that mark. His grandfather told him, “I know you want it, but you must throw it back.” And so he did.
When Mason was just nine years old, a neighbor, Audrey, showed she had confidence in him by engaging him to take care of her dog while she was on a trip. Every day, he had to enter her house, light the gas stove with a match, then cook an egg for the dog.
She insisted that he check that the gas was off every time he left the house, and he did. He remembers feeling proud of her trust in him.
During high school, Mason’s manager at the grocery store insisted on seeing his report cards, saying if he did not keep up his grades through high school, he couldn’t continue to work there. The manager told him, “There are better things waiting for you, better things than just this.”
Mason is grateful for all of the people who boosted him up so that, as he put it, “I could see over the rim of the bowl in which I existed at the time.” They believed in him, so he believed in himself.
Dream job at the FBI
During college and the Marines, he prepared himself for what had been a childhood dream: becoming an FBI agent. Investigating criminal cases and wearing a wire to go undercover in drug investigations was both scary and exciting.
He became a supervisor, and his upward trajectory continued: He was special agent in charge of the Sacramento division, assistant director in charge of the Washington field office, and executive assistant director of the FBI’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch.
Mason remains one of the four most senior African Americans in the history of the FBI.
Part of his new career choice stems from his philosophy of aging: “I don’t accept the conventional wisdom associated with aging. I exercise my body and mind,” Mason said.
To combine his philosophy of life and work, he is writing a book about how to navigate the working world. The title he is giving it is “Working in America, Spectator or Gladiator…You Decide.”
“You can’t wait for things to be perfect — to include the elimination of racism, sexism, homophobia and the other afflictions of our society. You must get out there and learn how to navigate through those whitewater rapids today.”
More bus drivers needed
Mason pointed out that there’s still a need for bus drivers and anyone can step forward. Currently there are more women bus drivers than men.
“If you like to drive [and] if you like kids, you can do this,” Mason said. “This is an important, fulfilling job.
“Half of loving your work is the attitude you bring to it. Important work comes in all forms. We all contribute stones to build a cathedral.”
Starting pay for school bus drivers for Chesterfield County Public Schools is $20.21 per hour, and job benefits include healthcare and retirement benefits. Drivers earn bonuses up to $3,000 per school year in addition to monthly attendance incentives and quarterly safe-driving incentives.
The school system will help applicants earn their commercial driver’s license and pay them while they train. Apply to be a Chesterfield County Public Schools bus driver at mychesterfieldschools.com/apply-at-ccps or call (804) 748-1984.