When Carla Mason asks how you’re doing, she really wants to know.
She waves and smiles at everyone she encounters working on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
But she can also sense when someone is down and could do with some cheer.
“When I see people hurting, I want to go up to them and talk to them and you know, just say a nice thing. A nice word goes far; a nice word goes very far. And people need that. They really do,” said Mason.
Her warmth is palpable. Her hugs are therapeutic. And her work as a senior custodian in Race and Hooper halls is outstanding.
So outstanding that she won this year’s UT President’s Award in the “Excel in All We Do” category. Mason was nominated by UTC Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Tyler Forrest and was selected for the prestigious award by a state committee, standing out among a pool of candidates from across the UT system.
“Carla is an outstanding team member,” Forrest said. “Her contributions to the University go far beyond the exceptional job she does as a senior custodian. She brings a positive attitude and great outlook to work every day. She is always ready for a good laugh, serious conversation, or anything someone wants to discuss. It is truly a pleasure knowing Carla.”
Mason said the feeling is mutual.
“We just bonded,” said Mason, who started at UTC in 2015. “He’s always talked about how good I kept up everything. But I had no idea he was thinking that I was above and beyond.”
Mason didn’t know she had been nominated, so when Forrest delivered the good news, she felt like “a kid on Christmas morning.”
“I was in awe. I could not believe that I even qualified for such a thing. It was humbling, and I really am grateful,” said the 60-year-old Chattanooga native.
Mason won’t take credit for her work ethic or sweet nature.
“It’s not me at all. It’s the Christ within me that shows up and shows out evidently, because I just do my little job, mind my own little business,” said Mason, who sometimes takes her break in Danforth Chapel.
Sometimes her grandson, Ledarrius Mason, a UTC business major, comes to visit her after or before classes.
“He used to come see me a lot his freshman year when he didn’t know his way around campus yet,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Nanny, where’s this building or where’s that building?’ Now sometimes he’ll just come sit on the pew for a visit.”
Primarily responsible for both Race and Hooper halls—two-story, 100-year-old buildings—she tackles the bathrooms first and then gets into each of the dozens of offices she cleans every day as early as possible.
“I know people have jobs to do and they want to get to it. So I want to get in and out as quick as possible but do a good and thorough job,” she said.
UTC Chancellor Steven R. Angle detailed Mason’s hard work in her nomination for the President’s Award.
“What might seem like a standard task is anything but because the building receives many visits from many members of the campus community, so her setting high standards and keeping it looking great is important,” Angle wrote.
But her positive impact on UTC goes far beyond her assigned duties, according to the chancellor. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason was “one of our frontline heroes for her commitment to protecting others and providing leadership during uncharted waters,” he wrote.
Not only is she meticulous, wrote Angle, “anyone who interacts with Carla is left feeling valued and important.”
Mason was previously honored with the Chancellor’s Blue Ribbon Award in 2018, given to those who go above and beyond the call of duty at UTC.
Whether she prays or reads passages from the Bible during her short respites throughout her workday at UTC—which starts at 6 a.m.—Mason said she stays positive and stays driven by her faith.
“I ask the Lord every day to let His shine in me,” she said, “and you know what? Some people say to me, ‘There’s something different about you.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, the holy spirit.’”
Mason, the youngest of 11 children, grew up not far from the UTC campus in Alton Park. Her grandfather was a preacher and she was raised in the church. She now attends Greater Community Church of Chattanooga Church of God In Christ.
She and her husband, Leroy Mason, who she calls her best friend, met in elementary school and started dating by high school.
“I thought he looked like Michael Jackson,” said Mason, a majorette at Howard High School.
They’ve been together ever since and have four children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“Family is everything to me. We’re so close,” said Mason, whose house serves as a daily gathering spot.
Her only daughter and “other best friend,” Calebra Mason, was her date for the award ceremony in Knoxville.
“I’m so proud of her. She really is the best,” Calebra said of her mom.
Carla Mason grew up in a large, tight-knit family and created her own, so it’s no wonder she has a knack for making people at work feel like family.
“I show them a smiling face and whatever else they need,” Mason said. “I tell them, ‘Come see me if you need to get it off your chest. I’m here.’”