It was the mid-1980s and fear of catching AIDS was gripping the country when young Ryan White, a hemophiliac in Indiana with HIV, petitioned to be allowed to continue attending his public school.

Then-President Ronald Reagan and the Republican-controlled Senate favored keeping him out. Some newspapers carried opinion pieces reinforcing that position (a Washington Post op-ed headline screamed: “Worry About the Survival of Society First, Then AIDS Victims' Rights”). But medical professionals could find no instance of HIV transmission through casual contact — a bite, a kiss, a cough.

It fell to Utahn James O. Mason, the Reagan-appointed head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1983 to 1989, to make a recommendation on the issue.

Mason, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had talked to scientists, public health professionals and his staff before making his decision.

“He knew he had to get this right,” recalls Cathy Stokes, who worked in public health in Illinois for 40 years and heard the story from Mason. “And so he closed the door to his office and got on his knees. When he got up, he wrote the decision that there was no reason for this child not to go to school.”

Mason, who died Oct. 9 at 89, “was a marvelous man,” says Stokes, who now lives in Salt Lake City. “He made significant contributions in the medical field and with race relations.”

When he arrived for the CDC post, Mason invited many African Americans — from maintenance workers to professional staffers — into his office, Stokes says, an effort rarely done by white appointees at the time.

Mason also was a man of faith.

“Prayer, at critical times when I cared for seriously ill patients, often led to approaches and ideas that positively and significantly affected clinical outcomes,” the physician wrote in 2010 for FAIR, a Latter-day Saint apologetics group. “Many significant professional decisions I was called upon to make in my work were based upon objective, well-controlled science and the confirmation of the Spirit. There is a spirit of truth. It acts upon people of all religious persuasions, living in every country, to improve the lot of mankind.”

Mason was born June 19, 1930, in Salt Lake City, where he attended Ensign, Lowell, Bryant and West high schools, according to his obituary. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955 and a medical degree in 1958 from the University of Utah.

The physician worked in Baltimore and in Boston hospitals and eventually turned toward administration, receiving a master’s and doctorate from Harvard School of Public Health. It was in that field Mason made his mark in local and national organizations, including as U.S. assistant secretary for health and U.S. delegate to the executive committee of the World Health Organization.

The medical professional also served in the Utah-based church as a bishop, stake (regional) president and as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, where he served in presidencies of the Africa and Africa West areas.

“Church and medical services in Africa were the capstone of his life,” says the obituary, which Mason wrote himself. “He had an abiding interest in the well-being of the African people.”

Mason and his wife, Marie, were married for more than 66 years and had seven children, 27 grandchildren and 47 great-grandchildren.

“Dad was very busy, both in his profession and in his church responsibilities,” recalls Jim Mason Jr., “but he spent as much time as he could with us.”

The energetic father taught the kids the value of work, enlisting them to help build a pigeon loft and care for a large garden, the eldest son says, “and he expected results.”

His dad loved “the out-of-doors,” says Mason, a retired businessman in Layton. “I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to go duck hunting or deer hunting.”

The overbooked professional was a planner but was “not rigid,” the son says. “He enjoyed kicking back, talking and laughing.”

Funeral services will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Farmington North Stake Center, 729 W. Shepard Lane. Burial will be at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.