A respected educator, he never forgot his roots

Monday, December 5, 2016

UNH alumnus Dr. John H. “Jack” Lawson ‘49

His gaze sharpened by what he had observed in his childhood and during years as a superintendent, Jack Lawson often didn’t like what he saw as he examined schools across Massachusetts while serving as state education commissioner in the early 1980s. “Inequities in educational opportunities have increased,” he told a legislative committee at the State House in March 1984. “Children born in one town in Massachusetts still receive a viable education, which gives them a good chance at life. Children born in another don’t.”

Having grown up poor in Gloucester, Lawson was driven by the desire to ensure quality education for children regardless of a community’s wealth or the racial makeup of its schools. Before he became commissioner, his work included serving as schools superintendent in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb where he implemented a voluntary racial integration program in 1970. Along with his decade in Ohio, Dr. Lawson also served as superintendent for four different Massachusetts school districts including Hingham and Lexington.

“He came from a very poor family,” recalls son John. “His father died when he was young, and he helped his mother pay the bills from when he was a boy.”

Through high school, Lawson delivered newspapers — some 100 a day — worked on the fishing docks and held down other jobs while playing both baseball and basketball for St. Ann’s School. He was 18 and working at an A&P grocery store when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The following day, he took a train to Boston and enlisted in the Navy. He posted top exam scores and became a chief radio operator, serving in the Pacific from Australia to New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines.

“I taught Grade 6 in the morning, I went to the high school in the afternoon, and then coached either varsity baseball or basketball, all for $2,600 a year. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”

After World War II, Lawson turned down two Ivy League schools to attend UNH on the GI Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree with high honors and then a master’s degree while lettering in baseball, basketball and football. It was also at UNH that he met his first wife, the late Helen DeLotto Lawson ’48, with whom he raised three children: John, Paula Lawson LeShane ’74 and Jay ’79. 

Lawson went on to earn a doctorate in education from Boston University, and began his career in public education as a teacher, principal and coach in Antrim, N.H. He told the Boston Globe in Oct. 1981, after being named state education commissioner, “I taught Grade 6 in the morning, I went to the high school in the afternoon, and then coached either varsity baseball or basketball, all for $2,600 a year. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.”

Lawson assumed the Massachusetts commissioner’s office during a difficult time, taking on duties that included supervising the monitoring of ongoing court-ordered desegregation in Boston’s schools. His tenure also coincided with the implementation of Proposition 2 ½, a tax proposal that led to drastic reduction in school budgets, the closing of 278 schools and the loss of 20,000 school jobs. When he left the post in 1985, the majority of those losses had been reversed.

After that, Jack returned to UNH, where he served as a professor of education and then as a trustee and associate vice president of the alumni association. “UNH was always an important part of his life,” recalls daughter Paula.

Helen Lawson died in 1981, and Lawson married Sally Ward in 1983. He and Sally divided their time between Amesbury, Mass., and Venice, Fla., until his death on March 30, following a precipitous decline in his health. He was 92.

A private person, it was only in Lawson’s later years, after he wrote a memoir, that his family learned details about his childhood and wartime service. In it, he noted modestly that while trying out for the Navy baseball team he had faced a pitcher named Bob Feller, who later became a Hall of Fame fastball pitcher with the Cleveland Indians. During batting practice, Lawson hit a home run off Feller with his very first swing.

“That was our dad, always very humble. He never once mentioned that unique achievement to any of us until late in life,” son Jay says.

Son John notes that it was a feat none of his fellow recruits would duplicate. “No other player hit the ball.”

— Bryan Marquard
reprinted with permission of The Boston Globe


Originally published in UNH Magazine Winter 2017 Issue