Maleka Williams McCray (Photo and illustration by Lee Eric Smith)

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

– Proverbs 4:23

When your nine-year-old son’s father dies from a heart attack at age 43, one path forward would be to focus on bringing awareness to men’s health. That’s the course chosen by Maleka Williams McCray.

In the wee hours of Dec. 16, 2017, Michael J. Mason, a contractor and former professional football player, collapsed at his home. A friend, who is a fireman, worked frantically to revive him but Mason died of cardiovascular atherosclerosis, with the secondary cause obesity.

William J. Mason at age 3 with his father, Michael J. Mason. (Courtesy photo)

Mason and Williams co-parent William J. Mason. Sometime later, after she had worked her way through the difficult conversation of explaining a heart attack to a young son harboring feelings of guilt, Williams McCray shifted into brainstorming mode about heart awareness. The result will be in full effect on Oct. 13 when the inaugural Bernal E. Smith, II & Michael Mason Heart Healthy Men’s Symposium unfolds at Rhodes College.

“We want to focus not just on health awareness but the mind, the body and the spirit; the whole male,” said Williams McCray, who has an 18-year career in pharmaceutical sales.

There will be an array of medical professionals to do health screenings and offer education and literature on the need to be more proactive in going for checkups, follow-ups.

“I said mind, body and spirit. With this particular one, we are going to focus on heart, cardiovascular…the heart is the foundation,” said Williams McCray. “It gives everything life.”

She reached out to Dr. Derrick D. Payne, a dentist, who has helped spearhead the Men of Memphis United three-day event that has focused on bringing African-American men together each October for the past six years.

“He said, ‘You should talk to Towanda (Peete-Smith, Smith’s widow). This might be a great collaboration for you both.’ That’s exactly what I had wanted to do. I just didn’t know how to get in contact with her.” A mutual friend in their sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.) bridged the gap.

Dr. Payne and Smith were fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc.) brothers and Mason was a good friend.

“I think it (the symposium) is very important,” Payne said, lamenting the loss of Smith and Mason and determined to spread health education that could prolong and/or save lives.

Long-term success, he said, would be men more educated about “about proper ways to take care of themselves spiritually, physically and mentally,” with the evidence including testimonies of blood pressure reductions, a drop in the rate of those dying from diabetes and fewer tragedies like those that befell Mason and Smith.

I am all about unity,” said Payne. “I am from Memphis and I want us to get on same page about health.”

For the last several years, Mason had coordinated a December event to raise money for a health-related charity. One year he did pancreatic cancer, which honored Williams McCray’s father, who passed away with the diseases. He’d also done breast cancer and juvenile diabetes. Last year it was lupus, the disease that claimed the life of a niece.

The American Heart Association will benefit from this year’s event, which Williams McCray already is planning. Keenly aware that Mason’s father died of cardiovascular disease when Mason was two years old, Williams McCray is contemplating how aggressive she needs to be with her son regarding the family medical history.

“A lot of times when there is a family history of it, it’s your genetics but you still have to do things to change that,” she said.

“He (Mason) knew he had health issues. But a lot of times we will say, ‘I’m going to get back in the gym next week.’ Or, ‘I’m going to start eating better next week. Let me get passed this week. Let me get through this event.’

“We don’t ever know if we are going to have another time,” she said. “He had a little bit longer with his son than what his dad had with him.”

Mason also had a history of high blood pressure.

“He was aware of it. He didn’t half take medication. He would say, ‘Oh, I won’t eat fried chicken anymore.’ Or, ‘I won’t drink this week’…he had just told my uncle …that I’m gonna get … this 20 pounds off…”

Mason and Smith knew each other. Williams McCray noted their common desire to do for others.

“One thing that they both did was give back and that’s why we want to make sure that this symposium is our way of giving back to the community.”