When presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton learned that Roland Massey was battling cancer, they each sent him a letter wishing him well.
Though it had been long more than a decade since he had last served as a Marine One pilot, they deeply appreciated his safely navigating them in the presidential helicopter.
Massey built two careers around safety, first as a U.S. Marine, the second as the safety coordinator at Wake Stone Corp., a mining company based out of Knightdale. He was drawn to action – Massey loved wearing steel-toed boots, whether jumping out of airplanes, visiting a quarry, or on his motorcycle – but he felt best when taking care of people.
“He liked to be thrilled and he loved to have fun, but he was always very safe about everything,” said Teeny Massey, his wife of 35 years.
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Massey, 61, died around the holidays from a rare form of pancreatic cancer. The disease manifested primarily in his intestinal tract, rather than the pancreas, which gave him years, rather than months, to try numerous treatments.
Ever invested in the safety of “his guys” at Wake Stone, Massey never formally retired from his job, no matter how ill he became.
Flying Marine One
Massey was born in Roanoke Rapids and grew up in Raleigh, playing football at Broughton High School before attending N.C. State, where he majored in English. He loved to write.
He met Teeny Massey while they were sophomores at Broughton, and they became best friends. It was years before they began dating, but it was clear they were “soul mates,” as she put it.
Not long after finishing his English degree, Massey realized he’d like to fly for a living. He joined the Marine Corp in 1978. He attended Officer Candidate School and was sent to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school.
The Masseys married and soon welcomed two children. They moved all over the country, everywhere from Bethesda, Md., to Hawaii.
The first Bush was in the White House when Massey was chosen for the elite squad of Marine One pilots. It was an incredible opportunity, his wife said, and he loved every minute of serving the Commander in Chief he would later refer to as “Daddy Bush.”
His children, Cameron and Hannah, were able to watch him land on the White House’s south lawn, and he visited Camp David. But it could be taxing on his family. During his military career he served four six-month deployments. But in one year as a Marine One pilot, his wife estimates, he was gone more than 200 days. Still, he loved the work, especially when he was able to train other pilots.
Massey continued to serve on Marine One through part of the Clinton administration, at which point he took advantage of a retirement package the military was offering for a short window.
It was time to come home.
All about safety
After 16 years in the military, Massey experienced an adjustment period. He dabbled in sales, then commercial real estate, but found neither a good fit. He became deeply involved in his church, Hayes Barton United Methodist, and his faith became a keystone around which he focused the rest of his life. He taught many a Bible study class, and was dedicated to numerous prayer groups.
Massey met Tom Oxholm, vice president of Wake Stone, at church. When Oxholm was in need of someone to head up the company’s new safety program in 1997, he immediately thought of the retired Marine. Massey might not have had any formal experience managing rock quarries, but Oxholm knew he understood the value of safe work environments.
Massey proved a quick study, and excelled at his craft. Wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots, he felt at home taking care of the crew and actively improved their safety practices.
“He knew all of our employees, and he considered it his challenge to keep them all safe,” Oxholm said. “Our safety results just improved dramatically. Our accidents and incidents rate dropped.”
Massey implemented numerous safety initiatives, and received many awards for his efforts. His latest recognition came for his idea that workers take “60 Seconds for Safety” prior to the start of a repair job. That period is dedicated to being intentional about risk assessment, making sure proper safety gear is available, and taking other measures.
Most importantly, Massey made sure he had relationships with all of “his guys,” Oxholm said. Knowing that Massey valued them as people, not as potential liabilities, made all the difference in the world.
“It became almost a ministry to him to keep all of our employees safe,” Oxholm said.
‘He was fearless’
In the four years Massey battled cancer, he underwent seven surgeries, numerous rounds of chemotherapy, and was reduced to just 6 feet of his small intestines from the typical 22.
Still, he stayed involved throughout, taking motorcycle trips even when he felt ill from the chemo, writing letters to inmates on death row, and even doing a tandem jump from an airplane on his 60th birthday last year.
“He had an interest in everything,” Teeny Massey said. “I swear, he was fearless.”