An Army officer stationed at Fort Benning in the early 1970s, Mason Lampton had no plans on settling down in Columbus.
That was before his now father-in-law, Ben Hardaway, invited him fox hunting one Thanksgiving. About a year later, he married Hardaway’s daughter, Mary Lu, and never left Columbus.
At 69, Lampton has been a successful businessman, currently the chairman emeritus of Standard Concrete Co. He is also the founder of the Steeplechase at Callaway, a major Columbus social and sporting event that raises significant money for local arts organizations. This year’s event will be Saturday
Recently, Lampton sat down with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams to talk business, steeplechase, fox hunting and Columbus.
Here are excerpts of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: OK, let’s talk about the Steeplechase. How did it start?
A: I was chairman of the chamber. I wanted to do something significant and I had ridden races myself for 13 years. I was a jockey, if you will, and had a ball doing it. I knew that I’d started one in Kentucky, in Louisville, before I left. We did it for charity for the arts in Louisville. I picked up that model.
Q: This grew out of that?
A: This was definitely out of being president of the chamber and trying to do something lasting that would be renewable. My grandfather started one in Nashville. It was kind of something that we learned how to do. I had to tell everybody, “We’re going to have a steeplechase,” and they said, “What is a steeplechase?” They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. It worked out really well. Everybody got behind me, the banks and everybody. It was wonderful coming together. It rained so terrible the first year, it was just a sea of mud.
Anybody who was there, all they can remember is mud. All the ladies lost their shoes. It turned out to be most memorable and it really was a good start. I had just graded the track at Callaway and the company helped me. We did a lot, moved a lot of dirt. Anyway, got it set up. I think it’s one of the prettiest courses in America. It just came together and stuck. It’s been a little labor of love.
Q: Are you surprised it has stood the test of time?
A: One thing that I’ve got to say we did well was we got new chairwomen every year. They’d come in the year before and learn the ropes, then they’d chair it and they would bring in their circle of friends each year. We had a renewal.
Q: You built an army of people to support it?
A: Exactly. Those ladies that were in their late thirties or forties are now 70, 75. They still come out to the race.
Q: How much money have you all raised for the arts?
A: I think we’re about $3.5 million right now.
Q: Give me an example of where some of that money may go or has gone?
A: We decided to do the five arts. The Historic Columbus Foundation, I consider it an art. The (Columbus) Museum, the Springer (Opera House). We added this one too: the RiverCenter (for the Performing Arts). Who am I forgetting? The (Columbus) Symphony (Orchestra).
Q: What you’ve done now, though, is you’ve set up an annual influx of cash for these organizations, right?
A: They say that we’re the biggest annual giver — all of them say that — the biggest annual giver that they have in all five charities. We just picked them up last year.
Q: I think a couple of years ago you had to reduce the number of races. People actually got upset there weren’t as many horses as there should be. I mean, they aren’t just going for the party, they’re actually going to watch the horses.
A: Yeah, it’s first-class racing. It was a terrible thing. The conditions of the race have to be tweaked to look at the supply of horses to run.
Q: Other races are competing against you the same weekend, right?
A: There’s circuit — there’s a spring circuit and a fall circuit. We’re in the fall circuit. There are three other races running that weekend. I wasn’t quick enough to change the conditions to meet the supply of horses. You’ve got novices — means you’ve won one race but you’re just beginning your career. If you win the derby, you’re a novice that’s just won. The idea is to get the very best horses you can that haven’t really been identified like the derby does, the Kentucky Derby does. Then we have the timber race, the maiden race.
Q:Your son Mason is now the chairman, but you’re still involved, obviously.
A: Yeah, I’m involved, but he’s 42 and I’m 69. He knows the young players and he knows the people. He grew up in it and he rode himself. He’s got great friends, now, where I did. Now mine have gotten old and quit, and tired and died or one thing or the other. He’s really on his toes about it and he’s done a great job of tweaking those conditions the last couple years. We talk about it, but I mean he’s really on top of that.
Q: Do you think you’re looking forward to a good supply of quality horses?
A: We never really know until that week before.
Q: It’s also earned the reputation as quite the party.
A: That’s what they all are. It’s like going to the football game — you don’t go there for nothing. The ladies are beautiful, and the food’s real good. It’s set up. In a way the elitist attitude got in there, but it is not elitist if you just want to go have fun, and you can price yourself anywhere you want to be and you’re having the same fun. Everybody co-mingles. I think that’s been damaging in a way. Now you’ve got that fancy tent. That’s where you raise most of your money, people pay for that box and that really is the money generator of the day.
Q: People on a tight budget can also go sit on a tailgate in the end field and watch the race.
A: Exactly, at a very reasonable price.
Q: I’ve seen mamas and kids huddled up in the back of a station wagon watching them come by.
A: You’ve got it. That’s exactly it. It can suit any pocketbook. It’s just up to them.
Q: I’ve seen people from as far as away as Dothan, Atlanta, Montgomery, Macon.
A: It’s a regional event.
Q: There’s no question in your mind?
A: No question. It really changed. We called it the Columbus Steeplechase at Callaway. We dropped the Columbus because it was regional. … I still gave all the money to Columbus, but I wanted to draw Macon, I wanted to draw Birmingham.
Q: There’s nothing wrong with some Macon money going to the Springer Opera House, is there?
A: I didn’t think there was a thing wrong with that. (Big smile.) A lot of people come over from Birmingham, a lot of people come up from Eufaula, Atlanta.
Q: Talk about the changes since Joe Rogers bought that part of Callaway.
A: I think that it’s for the better. I think Joe is a very successful business man.
Q: He’s the founder of Waffle House. Obviously he’s a successful …
A: He’s practical. He’s not quite the dreamer that some of the Callaway leadership was.
Q: Has he been a good partner?
A: Wonderful. Better than good. No. 1, he’s unobtrusive. We still give Callaway a hunk of the money, same as we give all the other charities. … He takes that money. He says, “Don’t give it to me, give it to Callaway.” It’s still going to the Callaway Gardens. He has assumed the debt of Callaway Gardens, but he wants it to continue in that motif that it’s been in, but a lot more practically.
Q: You’ve known Joe Rogers for a long …
A: For a long time. … I don’t know if he’d been (to steeplechase) but he’d heard about it, knew about it and he knew me. He knew Gardiner Garrard. He was in the YPO (Young Presidents Organization) with us. Anyway, he had ties to Columbus that were solid. I called him up and he said, “Mason, let’s just do the first year and see how it goes.” He came down there and really had a good time. He’s been there ever since. He’s solid as a rock. He knows we’re improving the ground, not tearing it up.
Q: Switching gears, you came to Fort Benning in 1970, right?
A: In 1970 in June. My family fox-hunted, from my grandfather going way back. Friends of ours knew Ben (Hardaway) through his fox hunting. They invited this poor old soldier boy out for Thanksgiving dinner and there was this hot-looking young woman. I went on and married her.
Q: How long did you all date before you all got married?
A: A year. I got out in ’72 and we married a week before I got out.
Q: Before you met Mary Lu Hardaway, did you have any idea you’d be in Columbus the rest of your life?
A: When I was going through basic training in Columbus in July, I swore I would never come back to this place again. It’s been a great spot, I’ve loved it.
Q: I’ll ask you, how’s Mr. Hardaway doing? I know he’s in his mid-90s now.
A: He’s 97. He’s sputtering, but he’s still got the mind — he’s a little bit shaky on things, but he’s good.
Q: He’s lived an amazing life, hasn’t he?
A: He has. He has been quite a character. Still is.
Q: When he invited you to come out fox hunting, you obviously knew how to fox hunt.
A: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was living large. I rented a place that was on St. Mary’s Road that was owned by Paul Head. It was about 10 acres with a big fancy fence and a little two-room hutch of a house with a lake. I brought some horses down here from Kentucky and turned them out. I’d feed them in the morning — they stayed out in that fenced-in area.
I was living a bachelor’s life feeling good about everything except waiting for that call to go to Vietnam. I was in the infantry. You’re really on that bubble at that time. Anyway, he called up. I had an old horse, went out there. We just struck it off and had a great time together.
Q: For people who don’t know, tell us what fox hunting is.
A: You have hounds. If you’re a dog lover, you understand that. There’s a relationship between you and the guy hunting the hounds and then the hounds. The guy following is watching that and he’s watching a bird dog work really well. I’ve hunted them all my life, so that was the real romance. Ben, who was quite a famous fox hunter himself, obviously.
Q: In that community, he was known worldwide, right?
A: Yeah. Then he wrote his book, was quite a thing. I mean, it’s in libraries in England and Ireland and France and all over to that audience.
Q: What’s it like when one of those hound dogs finally gets a scent on one?
A: You call that a strike hound. You got a pack of dogs out there and they’re going through the woods and you’re working them like a squad of soldiers going through the woods. They’re drifting with you. You don’t want them too tight because you want them out there looking. One will smell the scent of the quarry, of coyote now. Foxes, we haven’t seen a fox forever.
Q: Now you’re just hunting coyote?
A: Just coyotes. If it’s an old dog that they believe in, they fly to him and pack up and then they start working the line — feathering, they call that. Tails going like crazy. They’re working hard, working hard. Then they hit it again, then again and then they get moving on it. Then they start it, then they get it straightened out, and they’re out of there like a rocketship and you’re hanging on by a thread.
Q: You’re on a horse chasing this, right?
A: You’re following this as best you can. That’s the challenge. That’s another part of the fun is the challenge of staying with them. You’ve got to jump, you’ve got to gallop, you’ve got to go.
Q: There’s a lot of skill sets involved in this?
A: Yeah, definitely. … You can get hurt. People are breaking their necks. I just had a good friend flip over. He had been in a coma. … It’s not a wimpy thing.
Q: That horse is a 2,000 pound …
A: One rolled on me two years ago. Stepped in a hole and flipped.
Q: That’s got to be a bad feeling.
A: It felt like that rolling pin in the kitchen. That’s what it felt like rolling on me. It is a joyful thing to do. One, the love of the countryside; two, the love of the hounds; and three, the love of the horses. I like to say it’s four mammals: you’re one, the horse is another one, the dogs are another one, and that coyote’s another one. You’re trying to orchestrate all that together. Fox hunting is a real romance with nature, is what it is.
Q: Let’s talk about Standard Concrete company and the business side because you’re a major business here, but you really aren’t …
A: All our work is in plants in Atlanta, Savannah and Tampa.
Q: How many employees?
A: We do about 500 employees roughly. It ebbs and flows. …
Q: What do those guys do?
A: The yards are about 50 acres, and we’re on the water in Savannah and Tampa, and that’s the big secret of Standard. We have these big cranes and these beams are 150 to 200 feet long, weigh 100 tons. In other words, they’re massive.
Q: Precast, concrete beams?
A: Pre-stressed. The difference is that we have these beds with these pulling heads and we have massive concrete that they’re moored in. The beds are very expensive, a million dollars a bed. They’re 500 feet apart, and you pull the strand, which is steel strand — which is a steel rope, if you will. …
Q: How long does it take to make a beam?
A: It takes about a day to set it up, and then you pour it. You put your forms on the side and then you have to wait until it comes to strength. The concrete binds on the strand, binds on the rebar. Once it comes to a strength of maybe 3,000 psi, then you cut it down and the tendons that the strand that we pull come together. The strength of concrete is through compression. You’re giving it that compression when this stuff shrinks and comes together. That is a secret of pre-stressed.
Q: That is a heck of an operation.
A: It is. Then you’ve got these big cranes, these straddle cranes come out and you take it and let it cure out in the yard. Then you take it and we have these piers that we built that these cranes go out on. You got a barge that fits in there like a glove and set them on there and then you tug them out.
Q: Give me an example where one of those beams end up.
A: We built the Skyway Bridge in Tampa — all those beams are ours. Then we built the approaches to the Talmadge Bridge — built all those over in Savannah. There’s damn few bridges that are made that are over the inland waterway that we haven’t supplied the beams — these great separation beams — and we built all the bridges down here on I-185. We’re doing all the beams underneath the runway in Atlanta, you know where they have that tunnel?
A: There were 600 beams there that we made in Atlanta. We’re making all the beams for I-75 and I-85 up there.
Q: Sounds like good work if you can get it.
A: It’s terrible when there isn’t any work. We went through a terrible time in the last six years, but now it’s gotten real good again.
Q: What happened to your business in 2008 when the economic downturn hit?
A: We were devastated. Our backlog went down 70 percent. We lost millions of dollars, but we’ve made it through that time. It lasted five years.
Q: You didn’t start to see the bounce back till ’13?
A: Exactly. I’d say ’14.
Q: Is your business better in 2016 than pre-2008?
A: No, we are not as strong as we were at our peak, but we’re making money and we’re solid now.
Q: How many employees do you have in Columbus?
A: Not that many in Columbus. I’d say we’ve got 20.
Q: Are you starting to wind down now?
A: I am.
Q: Mason’s running the company now?
A: He’s been running it a good while. He’s been running it just shy of 10 years. We did that big expansion, and he was there for that. Then we had this downturn. It was a very sobering downturn — I tell you, it was tough. We’ve got great friends. Synovus stood by us and we worked through it and everybody’s happy now. That’s a good thing.
Q: You obviously see Columbus as somebody who lives here and got adopted into this community.
A: That’s right. … I think it has a great magic about it — people looking after each other not in any kind of fraudulent way. … Just if you’re straight with people here, they’re straight with you. By straight I mean honest, and you do what you say you’re going to do. I think that’s the key to the whole thing …
Q: In many ways this has been a handshake town, right?
A: Yeah, I’d say that’s right. Not in a bad way at all. Bill Turner is an amazing guy, we all know that. I mean … Hardaway had an office building right across from (St. Luke). Bill wanted it for the church. He wanted me to buy this thing (current Hardaway Building). This was a wreck. I don’t know if you remember.
Q: This was two buildings?
A: Yeah, two wrecks. Three really, because you’ve got an add-on in the back. He called me twice: “Mason, you’ve got to come over there and get that building.” I said, “Well, I just don’t like that building. It looks tough and I can’t make the numbers work.” Had no parking. He went on, he worked on it. He said, “I got it worked out. We can get the parking.”
Q: In you looked at some of the people that have been involved with the community, Mr. Turner clearly stands out in your mind, right?
A: He got me over here and he moved Mr. Birdsy, who had a grocery, at his cost, across the street there and rehabbed a building he owned for Mr. Birdsy. I bought this section and we did the trade. We put a lot of money in this building — we put $6 million, $7 million dollars in this building. With the parking, all that, it’s been a solid investment. Hadn’t been a slam dunk, but it’s been a very, very happy spot.
Q: When you see downtown Columbus now, do you see a success story?
A: I see a huge success story. Then having the university in here — I think Bill (Turner) gets credit for that. I mean, that was huge. Now, John Turner doing the whitewater. Think of having that kind of vitality and I think … I just, I love it here. I love being in this office. I love looking out and walking down there to the Mexican joint or whatever the other places are.
Q: How does it feel for you to know that the arts have been a huge part of that downtown revitalization?
A: Wonderful. I think we’ve helped them in our small way in making them live on. They share it, certainly. The actors, theater people are just incredible. They go on and on about how, what a difference we make to their annual budget. I mean, I regret that it’s not been bigger.
MASON HOUGHLAND LAMPTON
Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
Job: Chairman emeritus, Columbus-based Standard Concrete Co.
Education: Louisville Country Day School, 1965; Vanderbilt University degree in English, ROTC, 1969.
Family: Mary Lu, wife of 44 years; two children, Mason and Lucile; seven grandchildren.
IF YOU GO
What: Steeplechase at Callaway
When: Nov. 5
Where: Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga
Cost: Prices vary