Valley Voices

Marjaree Mason died from domestic violence 40 years ago. Today a shelter named for her helps women in Fresno

Nov. 13 marks the 40th anniversary of Marjaree Mason’s death in a domestic violence incident. A Fresno shelter for abused women was named after Mason.
Nov. 13 marks the 40th anniversary of Marjaree Mason’s death in a domestic violence incident. A Fresno shelter for abused women was named after Mason. Courtesy of the Mason family

Forty years ago on Nov. 13, I found the lifeless body of Marjaree Mason in the Fresno home of her ex-boyfriend. She was a victim of domestic violence — dead at 36 with much to live for.

I was a lieutenant with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in November 1978, and I will never forget that day. The horrible details are stamped on my brain — as they are for the sheriff’s deputies who also were there. But the story of Marjaree Mason did not end with her senseless death.

Fromer Fresno County Sheriff Steve Magarian RALPH V.THRONEBERY Fresno Bee file

She was committed to serving others, and volunteers in our community continued that legacy by establishing the Marjaree Mason Center in 1979. The center — which provides housing, counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence — played a crucial role as law enforcement became proactive in dealing with this crime.

When I started full time with the sheriff’s office in 1968, deputies received minimal training regarding domestic violence. Unless one party had severely injured another, our standard procedure was to separate them for a night.

We would ask whether a battered woman could stay at a relative’s home. Looking back, that response was inadequate. But for many, many years, domestic violence was seen as more of a family matter than an issue needing the full weight of law enforcement.

Gradually, that began to change. California legislators started to seriously address domestic violence. Today, officers are required to take action. If they see evidence of abuse — the imprint of a hand on a face, a cut eye, a torn dress — they make an arrest. Reports must be sent to the district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.

With mandatory reporting, we’ve basically gone 180 degrees away from the past — and that’s a good thing. But some things don’t change. Many women still need a place to go as they plan the next step for themselves and their children.

The Marjaree Mason Center — with 155 beds in its safe houses in Fresno and Clovis — is that place. Scores of families have found a better future while staying there.

Now about Marjaree Mason. She died at the hands of a deputy sheriff who took his own life, and her name has become a symbol of domestic violence. But first and foremost, she was a beloved daughter, sister, auntie and member of this community. Her death does not define her.

She was the eldest daughter in a family of nine children. Two of her younger siblings, Lovern Parks and Alfred Mason, both of Fresno, remember that when their mother had to go out, she entrusted the other children to Marjaree. She fed them. She disciplined them. She went to their schools when their mother could not.

When Marjaree kissed her siblings, she left a big, red lipstick mark on their cheeks. She marked their lives in other ways, as well. When Alfred married in his junior year at San Jose State and became a father his senior year, he considered quitting school because of family obligations. You can’t, Marjaree told him. She said she’d do whatever she could to help him. Alfred graduated and became an officer and then a sergeant with the San Jose Police Department. He retired after 28 years and returned to Fresno.

Before Marjaree died, she was studying for her degree at Fresno State, inspired by what she said her “little brother” had achieved.

Marjaree’s family has supported the center from the beginning, and 40 years later remains committed to its expanding mission. Lovern is pleased that the center offers court-ordered classes for batterers and a program to teach teens about dating violence. Over the years, she’s grown close to children at the safe houses, and the memories of those tender relationships bring tears to her eyes.

Marjaree’s legacy has continued to other generations of the Mason family. Alfred’s son, Khaneal, recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with plans to get a master’s degree and become a family therapist. Although he never knew his aunt, Khaneal pointed to heaven and said, “Aunt Marjee would be proud of me, Dad.”

Steve Magarian served as Fresno County Sheriff from 1987 to 1999.