BAKERTON – With his 94th birthday just weeks away, Dr. Donald Cameron “Doc” Master says he’s grateful for everything he’s experienced, from a sometimes-controversial political career that landed him on “Oprah” to his middle-of-the-night calls to care for ailing farm animals, to building his own plane to time spent with his large family and eclectic circle of friends.
“I couldn’t have chosen a better life,” a smiling Master explains firmly during an interview at Masterpeace, the bucolic mountain home he designed decades ago and now shares with Carolyn Master, a Montgomery County, Md., native who wed Master in 2006.
Master remains best known for his tenure as mayor of Charles Town, a post he won in 1968 and that ended when he lost a re-election bid 22 years later.
Now the West Virginia Municipal League – the 44-year-old nonprofit association representing more than 200 cities, towns and villages in the Mountain State – has honored Master for his “service and commitment to Charles Town, its citizens and the advancement of municipal government in West Virginia.”
Though his state of health kept him from traveling to Pocahontas County to attend his formal induction as a member of the league’s Hall of Fame, he says he’s happy about the honor.
Master’s name has been placed on a plaque on permanent display at the League’s headquarters in Charleston.
Though Master notes that politics isn’t as genteel as it was when he first ran as a Democrat in the 1960s, he says he’s still enjoys keeping an eye on the political process.
“When I started, things were not as antagonistic as they are now,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d want to be in politics now.”
But Master said he devoured the Oct. 3 showdown between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, an event that began around the time he usually heads to sleep.
“I loved the debate, loved it,” he said. “I watched every bit of it — plus the commentators’ discussion.”
Born in a suburb of Toronto, the youngest of five children, Master said he was deported for overstaying his visa in Chicago and later became a United States citizen.
He said he initially entered politics “to give something back to the country that had done so much for me.”
Over the years, he met and worked with political bigwigs both right and left, from then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan to New York Mayor John Lindsay plus state figures including Jay Rockefeller, Arch Moore and Jennings Randolph.
When voters cast him out in the spring of 1990, Master seemed untroubled. “More than 20 years ago, I defeated [20-year mayor] Nick Carson on the ‘It’s time for a change’ platform,” Master said then. “It’s ironic that I should be defeated by an opponent whose platform was simple: ‘It’s time for a change.’ ’’
Master’s years as mayor brought advances in infrastructure – he’s particularly proud of his work on the city’s sewer system, construction of the Charles Town bypass and of persuading City Council to begin using the Shenandoah River to supply water to the city – but there were struggles, too.
In the 1980s, cocaine’s popularity brought big city drug woes to the Eastern Panhandle and Master’s call for legalizing drugs won him invitations to hit national talk shows, including “Oprah” and “Donahue.”
He stands by his view still. “I thought then that it just makes sense to take away the profit motive – and of course that’s still the case,” he said. “Think of all the billions and billions we’ve spent [on the War on Drugs]. People who are addicted need treatment. For them, it’s a health issue.”
Master said he wasn’t a strong student in high school, even flunking algebra but after his principal recommended he study veterinary medicine, he “found something I felt passionate about. When I go to schools and talk to students, that’s always my advice – stay in school. You’ll find something that turns you on.”
Initially, Master’s career focused on working with farmers about the benefits of artificial insemination in dairy cattle. He worked with farmers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and then in West Virginia.
He first settled in Clarksburg, but upon discovering Jefferson County at age 29, he moved here and found satisfaction in his work as a farm veterinarian.
“They called me the ‘Fire engine vet’ because I’d go out to the farms even at 3 o’clock in the morning – for $3,” he said.
Though none of his four children or any of his grandchildren elected to follow him into politics, Master said he’s proud that one of his granddaughters is pursuing a career as an equine vet in Lancaster, Pa.
Looking over a scrapbook filled with photos and newspaper clippings chronicling highlights of his political, veterinary and family life, Master recalls how he celebrated his 80th birthday by flying in a plane he built himself. For his 90th, his children and officials at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races held a community reception for him and even named a race in his honor – the Old Gray Mayor.
He isn’t sure just how he’ll mark his 94th on Oct. 31, but said he’s looking forward to the day. “Ninety-four – that’s really something, isn’t it?” he said.