No commentary is required for this post, which first appeared in the Groton School Quarterly, and is used here by kind permission of the author and the school.
John Endicott Lawrence ’27
GP’81 ’83 ’85 ’93 ’94 ’00
Trustee ’47 to ’70, President ’65 to ’70
October 18, 1909 – March 27, 2007
By Franz Colloredo-Mansfeld ’81
It is no easy task to write a brief description of my grandfather’s life. The problem lies in the fact that John Endicott Lawrence’s life was not a short story but a rather long story- an epic, in fact– that spanned nearly a century. Although he preferred not to talk about himself, occasionally, over a scotch, my grandfather could be convinced to give us glimpses of his extraordinary life: as a young boy traveling by horse, train and boat between family homes in Milton and Groton, Massachusetts, and Dark Harbor, Maine; as a student at Harvard, carousing in Budapest with college friend, Franz Colloredo Mansfeld, my paternal grandfather, whose son, my father, would later marry my mother; after college, in the thirties, training for the new Olympic sport of alpine ski racing; taking Easter tea at the Vatican in a private audience with the Pope; during World War II, playing deck tennis with Admiral Halsey under the big guns on board the battleship, U.S.S. New Jersey; witnessing the Japanese surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri; post-war, declining a position in President Eisenhower’s administration to better care for my grandmother who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease; undertaking financially perilous-and occasionally hilarious-business adventures in Africa, the Middle East, and India.
But more important than the incredible things he did throughout his life was the impact he had on other people. Even in his nineties, Granddaddy, as I called him, was the hub of social gatherings-not because people wanted to dutifully pay their respects to an old patriarch, but because he was the sparkle in the room; his charisma and charm were a beacon and we all wanted to bask in his glow. He was contagiously optimistic, enthusiastic, sincere, and absolutely loved interacting with people from every walk of life. All who met him were uplifted by his deep interest in them. He had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the room and a better, more interesting person than you thought you were. I always came away from encounters with my grandfather feeling refreshed, re-affirmed, re-energized and determined to seize life, as he did, and make the most of every day.
If people were one of Granddaddy’s passions in life, another was Groton School. The Lawrences were intimately associated with Groton’s beginnings. The Reverend Endicott Peabody, Groton’s founder, was my grandfather’s great-uncle. Granddaddy’s mother, Marion (Peabody) Lawrence, called the Rector “Uncle Cottie,” and was, apparently, the only niece or nephew brave enough to do so. The Rector went to see Granddaddy’s grandmother, Caroline Estelle (Mudge) Lawrence, about starting a new school for boys. Caroline convinced her husband, James, to donate a portion of their property in Groton for the purpose of establishing the school, and added the proviso, as a devout Episcopalian, that a church be erected on the campus. The Rector, of course, agreed, and Groton School was born.
Granddaddy’s kinship with the Rector may have helped him gain admission to Groton, but it certainly did not provide a shield from the rigors of the academic program. Many of his descendants drew solace from my grandfather’s self-described rocky start. He entered the second form in the fall of 1921, at age eleven. In those days, grades and their recipients were announced in chapel at the end of each term. Even worse, they were read out in descending order of achievement. Much to Granddaddy’s horror and embarrassment, his name was read dead last that first term. His mother promptly withdrew him for intensive tutoring during the winter. As he used to recall with a chuckle, “That was a bad start!”
Rejoining his form spring term, however, Granddaddy considerably improved his academic performance and made the happy discovery that he excelled in sports. By sixth form year, he was quarterback of the football team. One of his favorite stories from that time, which he would relate with forceful gestures, was a detailed account of how he lost his front teeth during a football game. He had been sacked and before he could peel himself off the turf, his tackler took the opportunity to punch his teeth out while sitting on Granddaddy’s chest! Perhaps because of that incident, crew became my grandfather’s preferred sport. His happiest memories were those of his fifth form year when his father James, filling in for the Rector who was on sabbatical, traveled out from Boston every afternoon to coach the crew. The team was undefeated that year; the following year, my grandfather was captain of the team.
As a great-nephew of the Rector, my grandfather had a life-long relationship with Groton’s legendary founder. He often told the story of a meeting that took place between them in the thirties. Granddaddy had just returned to the family “Homestead” on Farmer’s Row (about a half-mile from the school) after a winter in Germany. While there, my grandfather had met Hitler, whose ambitions were not yet known, and traveled with him by train as a member of the press corps, to Hindenburg’s funeral. It was shortly after his homecoming that he paused to chat with his great-uncle outside St. John’s Chapel after a Sunday service. Endicott Peabody was most interested: What did John think of Hitler? My grandfather reported that he was not terribly impressed with the German Chancellor, but noted that conditions in Germany did seem to be improving.
The Rector shook his head vigorously and replied, “John, I thoroughly disapprove of dictators except here, on this campus!” He then turned on his heel and briskly strode off. Of course, as usual, the Rector was right.
Shortly after World War II, in 1947, my grandfather became a Groton Trustee and served until 1970–the last five years as President of the Board. During this time, the school made a significant leap from the time of the Rector to the school we know today. As Granddaddy put it, his goal as a trustee was to “open the windows a bit” during a time of social and generational turmoil that affected campuses nationally. Granddaddy’s geniality and vigor were, perhaps, ideal traits to help him shepherd the school through this interesting and challenging time, which included the installation of successive headmasters following the retirement of John Crocker. One of his prized possessions was a bull whip given to him by his fellow board members-purportedly as a compliment to the manner in which he ran meetings. Starting in 1977, with my enrollment as a third former, my grandfather may have embarked on his most pleasurable association with the school–as grandparent. Six of his eight grandchildren attended Groton including, in addition to me: Rudolf Colloredo-Mansfeld ’83, George Lawrence ’85, John Lawrence’93, Katharine Lawrence Sawatsky ’94 and Sarah Lawrence ‘OO. He was thrilled to see the tradition continue with the matriculation of his first great-grandchild, Franz “Seppi” Colloredo-Mansfeld ’09. I should note that he also proudly followed grandson Nick Lawrence’s progress at Holderness and cheered loudly at sporting events for granddaughter, Annie Colloredo-Mansfeld Penfield, though not for her school, which was St. Mark’s.
At a time when most think of retiring, Granddaddy focused his passion on the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). In his seventies, as Chairman of the Board, he was instrumental in transforming the MGH from one of the best hospitals in Boston to one of the best in the world. Always promoting a global outlook, he was a key motivator in helping MGH found a hospital in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) that combined two important aspects of his life’s work: forty years serving as a trustee of MGH and forty years conducting business in India. We, his family, were amazed at the frequency of his trips. He would disappear, with a bottle of whisky and another of paregoric, for a whirlwind trip to Mumbai and return less than a week later. When asked why the stays were so brief and how his sensitive stomach had coped with the food, he would reply that his strategy to stay healthy was never to remain long enough to have to eat.
Throughout his life, Granddaddy’s greatest passion was his family. He was the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for each and every one of us. He was an avid fan of his daughter, Susanna (my mother), as she raised her three children and dedicated herself to environmental causes in Alaska, Wyoming and Hamilton, Massachusetts. He lived vicariously through oldest son, Jack as he pursued business ventures in Africa and through his younger son, David (living in Texas, New York, China, and Boston) who, as a Groton trustee, helped oversee the planning and construction of new buildings at the school he loved so much. He continued to closely follow affairs at MGH, a task made easier when Ferdinand Colloredo-Mansfeld ’57, his son-in-law and my father, succeeded him as chairman, followed by Edward Lawrence ’59, his nephew.
For all of my grandfather’s privileges, his life was not without challenges. Hs wife and my grandmother, Anne (Tuckerman) Lawrence, was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and for some twenty-five years, they fought heroically together to find some treatment for its horrible effects. That effort proving futile, they contrived ways for my grandmother to live at home with grace and dignity until her death in 1980. In 1983, Granddaddy married an old friend, Janet Barnes, mother of Peter’58 and Tracey’64, who was a wonderfully game companion in their shared adventures until her death in 1998.
Last spring, I had the great pleasure of accompanying my grandfather to several Groton crew races to watch my son, Seppi, row. On all occasions, Granddaddy’s enthusiasm was electric. As we drove home after one of the races, Granddaddy reflected, as a then ninety-six-year-old would, upon the inevitable conclusion of his life. His mood was not at all morose, but rather serene and confident. He shared with me his belief that his spirit would live on in his descendants and that he found this thought very comforting. Now that his body is gone, I take enormous comfort in this belief, as well. When I watch Seppi plunge his oar into the water, I don’t just see my son; I see Granddaddy, straining on the oar, giving his all, racing for victory. His spirit and passion do, indeed, carry on in his descendants, and I thank God that there’s a part of him in me.