Uncle Johnny’s memorial service, May 13, 2007, stands out in my mind in an almost singular way. It was a glorious spring day, and people from all over the world had come to pay tribute to him. There wasn’t a hint of sadness or morose sentiment– at least that I detected. Just a collective marveling at this…spirit…that we had been lucky enough to know. His three children, Susanna, Jack, and David, all spoke.
Here is the program we followed and sang from, followed by their thoughts, as delivered…..
Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you all for coming.
Myopia Huntsman Eugene blew “Going Home” on the Horn to get us started. Hunting was one of my father’s greatest pleasures, especially whipping for his great friend Mr. Winthrop and jumping the fences alongside Mrs. Winthrop. (What fun you all had.)
We have a lot to thank my father for – and one is for this place. This was his port in any storm and that is why we are gathering here today. He loved his home. He bought it in 1947 after the war. The house and surrounding land had been purchased and held by Mr. Winthrop and other wise souls around here. When Daddy first came to see the place, the house was locked and Mr. Winthrop did not have the key- so his answer to that was to get his pistol and shoot the doorknob off. Daddy always enjoyed telling that story.
After the service please feel free to go into the house. He would be pleased about that. I am sure he is happy we all are here. The person who coordinated this setting for the service is Robert Henrici- he has been a huge help in pulling all this together. Thank you so much Robert. I also want to thank Bob Emerson who for 18 years has fed our family gatherings held at this house. We are glad he could be here today- Thank you Bob.
(Well we thought he was going to live forever but he and others had different plans. I think the ladies up there were getting restless. One night we were having supper and he was boasting about being 97. He said, can you believe I am 97? Isn’t that amazing. I said yes, but how do you keep on going? I’m nearly worn out now. He said Give it 10 – I said, what does that mean? He explained that when he was rowing and you get close to the finish and you have no more left in you, the Cox beats on the side of the boat with his wooden steering paddles and yells “ give it 10 boys, give it 10”. So yesterday I was talking with Seppi who is on the Groton crew, he said he had a very difficult race that afternoon and I said just remember what your Great Grandfather would say – Give it 10 Sep and so he must have because they won the race.)
Daddy lived his life with great joy and a passion for everything he did. He packed a lot in- always gave back more than he took- he had a positive attitude and a curiosity about everything and everybody. He said he learned some thing new everyday.
He was definitely of the old school of grab the mane and kick on. At times this was not easy for me. He was such natural athlete and if I moaned about some obstacle before me he would say: “Come on Susanna, grab mane, kick on, and throw your heart over the fence.” This for me is a wise part of his legacy.
These are some of the things we’ll remember as we face these challenging times. A mighty tree has fallen in the forest and a notable imprint has been left on the earth. His spirit lives on in this place and in each of us.
(*Sentences in parenthesis were adlibbed as I was talking)
Thank you all for coming today to celebrate the life of my father in this place he loved, where he lived many happy moments and died in his own bedroom with all of us there. It means a lot to us that you all have gathered here today with us.
There is a pivotal moment in everyone’s life when its basic course is revealed. I think that came for my father in 1935 when he finished 5th in the Olympic trials on Mt Washington. That qualified him for the team which would spend the next year training on Mt. Hood in preparation for the 1936 Olympic Games. He had returned from Germany in 1933 having caught the skiing bug in the mountains with Herr Defregger. In the first Inferno race on Mt. Washington in 1934, he came in 13th. Now with a 5th place finish, he faced a choice- Olympics or back to law school. Uncle James, his elder brother, had competed in the Olympics in 1928 in a 4 oar shell. This would be catch-up. So I asked him how he thought his mother would have voted. She was a strong voice in the family. Pop loved to tell the story about when Uncle James won a Model T Ford at a church fair that was organized by their mother. She told the contributor of the vehicle that he could not have it. “Madam”, he replied, “it is your son who has won the car, not you.” You get the picture. Pop’s reply to me was that the family was paying for his law school, and he went back to finish. I think it was a decision he always regretted. He found himself unfulfilled by practicing law, and when his mother died, he left Goodwin, Proctor & Hoar and joined his father in the cotton business. The war intervened as it did for many in his generation. Pop loved being in the center of the action. 32 years of age and over the hill with a gimpy knee and color blind, and having been rejected by the army, he talked his way into the Naval Air Intelligence branch being formed out of a bunch of like civilians in Quonset under British guidance. That landed him in Guadalcanal early in the campaign, and the coastwatcher liason experience he gained there brought him a billet on Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s staff. That took him all the way to a first class seat at the Tokyo Bay surrender on the USS Missouri in 1945. You couldn’t get more into the action than that.
If my mother hadn’t started down the road to incapacitation by Parkinson’s, I believe he would have become a politician and Washington would have been home instead of Hamilton. He had already begun to build on Navy and other contacts and was right in the middle of the “draft Ike” campaign and convention in 1951. Cotton merchants were being displaced by the U.S. farm program. It was not to be. He did a lot of things instead with varying success but always with great energy and optimism. The centerpiece of his life, though, became the Massachusetts General Hospital beginning in 1947. It remained his main focus right into his late 70s, extended beyond its natural life by the building of the Hinduja Hospital in Bombay which he and Bob Buchanan pursued with great personal attention. This project combined his fascination and long experience with India with his beloved hospital and gave him a chance to “make a real difference,” something his mother had drummed into the head of her children. Administering was never his thing. He never even balanced his checkbook. That was something the bank could, and should, do. It was the people who mattered. Getting the right person into a slot and then getting their best performance is what mattered to him. And, people responded to his interest in them.
The risk taker of 1935 may have gone back to finish law school, but he never changed his orientation. He was fond of saying that a good lawyer never made decisions. The lawyer’s job was to outline the choices for his client without bias. Pop wanted to be a decision maker. He put himself in the middle of any action that was within reach, and he had a full and fully engaged life. We miss him.
Good Afternoon. In deference to our father’s wishes, Susanna, Jack and I agreed we would be the ones to offer remembrances. But in the letters and messages we have received from so many of you and from so many others not able to be here today and by your being with us right now, each of you has stood up and spoken about John Lawrence and for that, the three of us are very grateful – thank you!
My father died on Tuesday evening, March 27th. He and we were pleased and relieved that he was able to die at home as he had hoped he could.
Congestive heart failure was the cause of death and, during his last five weeks of life, he grew to reluctantly accept the increasing loss of his cherished independence and to acknowledge his inability to overcome – even with his extraordinary strength of will – the limitations of his aging body. All that said, he had me laughing out loud in a conversation we both enjoyed two days before his death.
We brought him home from a short hospital stay during the afternoon before the day he died and, after testing for a bit the new limits upon him, he left this life just as he always preferred to leave a party – decisively, quickly and with those around him grateful he had been with them.
In fact, he may have set a record for the shortest duration of hospice care, for he was admitted to hospice less than 10 hours before he died. That was just as he would have wanted it to be and a statistic that I expect he is still proud of!
His obituary in the Boston Globe referred to John Lawrence in its headline as a businessman, sportsman, volunteer. He was certainly all those things. He was also a man of real depth and many positive qualities, including: integrity; modesty; ability; judgment; focus; drive; enthusiasm; optimism; fairness; and a keen interest in others.
He was an unusual businessman, for often his initiatives were about far more than just the chance to possibly make some money. He understood and respected as a constructive discipline the need to earn a living and he did that in a productive manner, providing his family with a secure and comfortable life and his children with the education and the example to have the courage to pursue our own interests.
Many of his business ventures were adventures – for him and certainly for his co-investors. This was true for, perhaps conditioned as a small operator in the high risk environment of the cotton merchant, he was often eager to attempt to manage unusual risks to a successful outcome.
Occasionally, success was not forthcoming, and some of the ideas were simply too far ahead of their time. Forming companies to offer cable TV and home security systems in the late 1950s when almost no one perceived there was or ever might be a demand for either stand out as two examples.
He was a sportsman and he loved the friendly competition of golf; the thrill of hurtling downhill on skis; the strength of moving as one with a horse; the feeling of being on a boat; the freedom and the quiet when one is under sail. The cover of the program provides a glimpse of him, happily on a boat 30 years ago when he was 67 years old.
He also loved just walking in the woods – which he did at high speed – and he took great pleasure in being out of doors. He loved changes in the weather, the distinct seasons and the turbulent nor’easters of New England, whether they brought rain or snow. He loved the sound of the wind and the sight of the evening light in the tall Eastern White Pines he saw from his bedroom during the 59 years he lived in this house.
He particularly loved the coast of Maine and its islands and the chance to see the Camden Hills. Please share with him the image on the back of the program. That is the long view of those hills my father and my stepmother, Janet Barnes Lawrence, enjoyed from the cabin they visited for several years on Ledbetter Island off Vinalhaven.
My father was thoroughly a Bostonian. Although he traveled widely and worked several days a week during his most productive business years from an office in New York City, he loved Boston; its history; its traditions; its culture; its institutions and its clubs. He loved the Public Garden and when I walk though it, he is on my mind and with me.
He was a global thinker, traveler and business man from the early 1930s, well before “global” became such a familiar term. He marveled at the extent to which new technologies had reduced the apparent size of the world through greater ease and speed of travel and the nearly instantaneous sharing of information and knowledge.
But he was also concerned by what he saw as the inability of mankind to catch up and to address the risks of being misled by such apparent ease and speed. He knew our world remains a complex array of societies, cultures, religions and competing interests and he believed that, as the world became more accessible, there was a greater need than ever to be able to recognize, appreciate, respect and address our fundamental differences.
My father was a steadfastly independent man. Following the loss of his lower right leg in the spring of 1998, he demonstrated extraordinary patience and constructive acceptance of this unanticipated handicap. He believed that the more he did for himself, the longer he would be able to continue his independence. He was remarkably successful – for a long time – in his disciplined efforts to live on his own.
That success was also made possible by the support, commitment and loyalty of many people who – with deference and dependability – were available and ready to help him, to the extent he would accept that. I extend heartfelt thanks from Jack, Susanna and me to: Hanna Brown; June Donovan; Elaine Twitchell; John Bolduc; Carol Thurber; Ronnie Thistle; Donnie Thistle; Andrea Ebbinger; Sherri Lewis; and Rob Emmons for all the assistance, kindness and care you gave to our father.
I add my own thanks to my brother, Jack for all he has done and I particularly thank our sister, Susanna, who was always alert to what might be needed at any time and who always took the initiative to make sure it happened.
We also want to recognize Peace of Mind home health care, MGH PrimeCare and Hospice of the North Shore, as each organization played an important role in assuring dignity and compassion were a part of our father’s last weeks.
But in the midst of all these traits and experiences, Johnny Lawrence stood out as a most engaging man, just as the familiarity of that name so many called him suggests. He took great delight in engaging with other people and in having each of them engage with him. He loved the in-depth, one-on-one conversation, which could be about anything and most likely sprung from the interests or activities of the other person.
His life was always more about others than it was about himself. One friend shared with me his kind observation that, “when John Lawrence entered a room, it was suddenly a better place to be”. Another friend shared with my wife, Susie, her wonderful observation that, “men liked John Lawrence, women loved him!”
My father was cremated the Friday after his death and he was interred yesterday, as he had asked to be, in the Lawrence family plot in the Groton Cemetery, beside our mother, Anne Tuckerman Lawrence, with whom he had shared so completely the many joys and the many challenges of their enduring marriage of 42 years.
And so, solidly in the midst of his 98th year and after a full and fruitful life of giving more than he took, our father has brought my sister, my brother and I, our spouses and each of our children to a new chapter in our lives for, while he is still with us in so many ways, he has gone and everything is now and always will be different for each one of us.
But I ask you to please read the text from Henry Scott Holland on the back of the program, for I believe that is how he would like us to accept this change and also how it can be for each of us and for his friends and for the friends of ours who knew him.
We are – and we always will be – grateful for his example of a life well-lived, grateful for his love, for his care, for his kindness, for his interest in each of us and grateful for his extraordinary and inspiring enthusiasm for living and for the joy of life!