Though his family originally lived just inside Minneapolis, along East River Road, they soon moved to Saint Paul’s Highland Park, where John grew up and has lived his entire life, with the exception of a twelve year stint in Austin Texas. He returned to the Cities nine years ago.
He dabbled at various colleges along the way, together with studies in the travel industry at Dakota County, before years later committing himself to obtain a degree in social work from the University of Texas.
You will likely recognize John as the tall, fit, and dapper dresser that is seen quite often around temple. In the photo (above) you can also see the tree that had been donated by his confirmation class, just over his right shoulder.
You may also recognize him as a frequent leader of daily services, where he provides a particular melodic quality to the liturgy. He has become a vital member of the Mount Zion volunteer group that routinely leads services at the Wellington, as well as the group that leads tours for visitors to Mount Zion.
But singing is his passion, and he was in full stride last Purim, as he relished the role of that dastardly Haman in the temple’s production of Megillah on the Roof.
Tell me about your family growing up.
My father is Joseph Mast and my mom is Diane Johnson Mast. They were both originally from Saint Paul. My mother’s family is the Johnson of Johnson Brothers, the wholesale liquor company. I have actually worked for both Lynn and Mitchell. They are really my mom’s first cousins, but I kind of consider them as uncles. I’ve been very close to the Johnson family all these years.
A short scorecard might be helpful here with respect to the Johnson lineage. In relevant part (to our story), great grandfather Samuel (and John’s namesake Jennie) begat children that included sons Harry and Yale. While Yale begat Lynn and Mitchell, Harry begat Diane, and she begat John. And so we begin.
My brother is Bob, although my mom had me when she was with her first husband, though I never knew him. Then there was a time, after my mom’s first marriage, where I lived with my grandparents, Harry and Adeline Johnson.
Harry was a partner with his brother Yale. He helped found Johnson Brothers, and before that they owned grocery stores throughout Saint Paul.
What can you tell me about your father, Joe Mast?
He was born a Mastbaum, and by trade Joe was originally a lawyer. He went to law school at both the University of Minnesota and Berkeley and had passed both the California and Minnesota bar. At the start, he practiced as a lawyer for a while here in Saint Paul, he was partners with Ralph Stacker.
Howard’s father? That family comes up often in these conversations. I’ve actually been at the same firm with Howard for over 20 years. It’s either a very small world or those Stackers get around.
To my recollection that was Joe’s first law practice, then he went on from there to head up his own law firms. Eventually my father went into real estate, residential. He was buying and developing residential properties, in addition to the ones he took over from my grandfather. The original properties came from my grandfather, Harry Johnson.
So your father got into real estate partly because of his law practice, and partly also because of his wife’s father.
We should get back to your timeline, I didn’t mean to make this all about the Johnson family.
Anybody can ask me about the Johnsons, any day. I love the Johnson family.
What were your interests in school?
I went to Horace Mann grade school, and Highland Park for junior and senior high. I was active in choir, and I actually ended up singing with Debbie Friedman. She was a year or two ahead of me. And she and I were in the same choir, at Highland High.
OK, let’s go down that path for a bit. Were her talents recognized as early as high school?
Our choir teacher was one of the first ones who actually cultivated her talent – her name is Joyce Kraulick. And she’s still around. She was a wonderful teacher. Debbie had the lead in the school musicals. That’s how I remember her musicality beginning, and then I got to know her leading our songs at temple of course.
And (Mount Zion’s) Rabbi Schwartz took a real interest in Debbie too. I believe you may see it on the chronology chart at temple, around the late 1960s and early 1970’s. I think Debbie’s first piece was written for Mount Zion, before she started to go off to the different camps like OSRUI, and Kutz Camp in upstate New York.
I was in one high school production with her, so I knew her from that time forward. Then of course I knew her real well at Mount Zion.
Were you also in sports during high school, did you get any awards?
Off and on, I was in swimming and track.
In choir, though, I was in All State Choir. We actually were rewarded – it’s like receiving an Aliyah – by going up to summer camp at Bemidji State University. And Dr. Dale Warland was our conductor, so we rehearsed with him for a week, and at the end of the week we gave our concert.
How about after high school, did you go to college?
I did at first, I went away to college, but I came back after one semester, and went to Saint Thomas, and then to the U. So I accumulated about two years of undergraduate credit, but then I dropped out. But years later I moved to Texas with my then wife, and decided to get my degree. So I started with the community college in Austin and I had such a wonderful experience there that I just fell in love with the University of Texas. And it became a dream of mine to graduate from the University of Texas, so I transferred from the community college to Texas, and that’s where I got my degree, as an adult, in social work.
A bit earlier, you mentioned that you had worked for a while in a travel agency, and even a while in your dad’s business.
After my first couple years in college I went to Dakota vocational tech and took the travel planner course to become a travel agent. And then I worked as a travel agent right here in Highland Park, at an agency that is still in business, Village Travel. Back then it was owned by Harold Zats, who my father knew, and had done business with. He was the father of Terry Zats, who owns the business today, and is a Mount Zion member.
I always travelled a lot, even previous to that. We went on a lot of family trips. But at the agency I got to take a lot of familiarization (“fam”) trips, including one to South America, including one to Buenos Aires that was rather fascinating. And to Mexico. And the most adventurous, I went to Colorado for a week one summer and took a three day river raft trip. That was a lot of fun.
What prompted the move back from Texas?
I came back to be closer to my family. I didn’t have a job here at first, but eventually Lynn offered me a part time job and I’ve been doing that since I came back. I’ve been back – it’ll be nine years in January. I’m not involved in the liquor part of the business at all, but they have many other entities. Lynn built a self-storage facility on Seventh Street and I help manage that.
What are your plans for the future?
I actually love what I’m doing right now. I never imagined that I would. I’ve learned a whole new business. Business has always fascinated me, especially family run ventures. And this, in essence, is really family run, even though it’s a large facility.
How did you become active in daily services?
When I was first approached to become involved in daily services, I was still living in Texas, but I was back home visiting and Rita asked me. And I said “I would love to Rita, but …”
You don’t live here!
I don’t live here! Coupled with the fact that I was never a member of Mount Zion as an adult, until I did move back. So once I did move back, and joined Mount Zion about a year later, that was about the exact time that Rita was stepping down from being in charge of daily services, and I put in my request to Charles and Janet. So it was kind of ironic, that all these years she wanted me to lead daily services – what’s the Jewish word?
It was Beshert! That just as Rita was stepping down I would come back and help assume that role.
You are so good at singing and leading the Hebrew prayers at daily services, especially compared to me. I can barely recite the transliteration, in monotone, and even then I pick the shortest selections. How did your talent come about?
There were two people that were instrumental in that. My interest for that, Judaically at least, began when I was in Hebrew school. There was (Mount Zion) Rabbi Schwartz who I absolutely adore to this day, and I am still very close to Roberta. I went down and called on them after he passed away in Chicago. I used to go to OSRUI with him every year, and I was in his confirmation class, and he was my bar mitzvah rabbi.
Along with John and classmates that included Steve Silverman and James Levine, Rabbi Schwartz is shown in their 1970 confirmation class picture in the school wing. Good luck picking them out.
And my mom used to take me to services on Friday nights, and afterwards she would pack myself and Roberta and Fred’s three boys into the car and she would take me back to the Rabbi’s house where I would baby sit the Schwartz kids.
And the second person that influenced me was the ritual director at Temple of Aaron. My parents sent us to Talmud Torah, and it was held there. His name was Harry Gottesman. He was the most fabulous ritual director, and he ended up teaching me even though I wasn’t a member of Temple of Aaron. He taught me my maftir.
Do you have any hobbies?
I am an avid exerciser. After I moved back from Texas, one day I discovered a Zumba class, so now I go to about four or five Zumba classes every week, on average. Zumba is an aerobic workout that has an Hispanic origin. Hispanic mixed in with rock music, but it’s a very rigorous workout.
We certainly also notice that you are a very dapper dresser.
That comes from my grandfather Harry. He was a dapper dresser. For whatever reason, I remember going to high school when all the kids would wear jeans, or dungarees. I would ask my mom if I could have nice clothes, even at that time. I never went to school in jeans, it was always tailored slacks.
Do you own any jeans?
I do. Yeah. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve worn them.
Do you have any secret skills?
Well, I am almost fluent in Spanish. I took it in junior and senior high school, and then again for my college requirements. And now I am taking private Spanish lessons once a week – so I get to practice my Spanish there, and when I have conversations with (temple custodian) Elias, I speak almost entirely in Spanish.
One of my Zumba teachers leads a trip to Mexico every year, and this will be the third year that I’m going, so I also speak Spanish the whole time I’m there. We dance the Zumba for an hour every day. It’s in a small village, beautiful, unspoiled. It is held at the Present Moment Spa in Troncones, right outside of Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa.
Let’s skip back to your family histories, what do you know about them?
From what I do know, part of my birth father’s family, I think, came from Russia or Poland. But I also know that there is another part of his family that came from the Mediteranean – Portugal or Spain. Which may be where I get my interest in Spanish, and Zumba. I don’t know of many others around Saint Paul that trace their roots back to the Sephardic regions.
And my mother was a Johnson. They all came from Poland. Lynn learned a lot about the family history. I miss him so much. One of his avid interests was photography, and back in those days he took Polaroids or film, and he had a family get together once where he showed a slide presentation on the history of the Johnson family. He had done all the research, and went back to Europe. He actually has a book in the Library of Congress about the Johnson family. And there are two pages in there that I wrote about my grandfather, Harry Johnson.
I assume the Johnson name was changed at some point?
What I heard is that they came to Ellis Island and the passport people took one look at their documents, and they Americanized their name Josafsky – to Johnson. Right there on the spot.
Final topic, almost every day I drive past streets in Mendota Heights that are associated with your family, at the top of the hill on Victoria Drive.
My father Joe did all that. There are streets named after both of my grandmothers, Adeline Court and Celia Road. Celia is my dad’s mother, and Adeline was my mom’s. And there is Diane Drive, so my brother lives on the street named after his mom.
But all the other names were of people that owned lots. Anybody who bought a lot from my dad, in this development. So there is Rae Court, that was Arnie Divine’s wife Rae. She just passed away within the past five years. And Barbara Court, after Arnie’s daughter. And there are Nina Court and Caren Road, after his mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
Joe developed that whole area, and just decided that he wanted all the streets named after women.