Remembering Ray H. Lawson

In Memory of Ray H. Lawson

By Deborah Larsen

Most children watching the Rochester Christmas Parade keep their eyes peeled for the last unit in line—that’s Santa Claus, after all. As a child, I was equally fascinated with the first unit in the parade. Right there at front and center, just after the slow-rolling police cruiser, in every year for what seemed like decades, was Ray Lawson. Proudly wearing his crisp American Legion uniform, his white-gloved hands firmly holding the staff of the American flag, eyes front and shoulders back with perfect posture, he led the parade down Main Street with a precise march.

Ten men march down Main Street, most in military uniform, two hold flags - one is the US flag.
Ray H. Lawson leading the Christmas parade with the American Legion color guard (Courtesy of Clarence Whitbey family)

Ray Lawson died Tuesday, June 1, 2021, at the age of 102. Several generations of Rochester area residents were introduced to this remarkable man in his classroom at Rochester High School (RHS), where he taught English for 58 years. Yes, you read that correctly—he was there long enough to teach the children and grandchildren of his first students. He began teaching at RHS in 1946, when the high school was located at Fifth Street (University Drive) and Wilcox, in the building that currently houses the RCS administrative center.

Ray Lawson was a native of Sandusky, Michigan. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to teach poorly educated soldiers who had limited or no reading and writing skills. After the war, he accepted a contract to teach in Rochester for $2700 per year. He told a newspaper reporter in 1981 that he had needed coaxing to accept the Rochester job because at the time he had felt that it was “too close to the big city.”

Lawson began serving as the senior class advisor at Rochester High School in 1956, but it was his role as a teacher of composition that touched generations of students there. For decades, the prospect of English class with Ray Lawson struck fear in the hearts of Rochester High’s college-bound students, including me. We knew there was no such thing as an easy “A” grade from Mr. Lawson. One had to work for the grade, always, and it was a fortunate student who scored a “B.” Lawson‘s standards were exacting and unrelenting, but he had a goal in mind. No student of his was going forth into adult life—let alone college—without good writing skills. Day after day, he hammered the lessons home for us: grammar, spelling, vocabulary and usage, sentence construction, outlining, and the proper way to build an effective argument supported by examples. Some mistakes were simply beyond the pale; let one sentence fragment sneak into your composition, and your grade was an automatic “F,” no matter how stellar the rest of the essay might otherwise have been.

There was never a “day off” in Ray Lawson’s class. He didn’t show movies. We worked on our composition and critical thinking skills every day. There was no break, even on the very rare occasion when the teacher was absent from school. In other classrooms, it wasn’t unusual for a substitute teacher to show a movie or declare a “study hall” hour to keep the students occupied while he or she read the newspaper. However, in Ray Lawson’s classroom, his usual substitute teacher was his wife, Mrs. Dale Lawson, who always walked into class armed with a lesson plan and conducted business as usual.

Lawson also used the study of literature to teach writing, and he didn’t go with the easy selections. My senior class read and wrote essays on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Those novels were pretty challenging material for 17-year-olds. (And sorry, Mr. Lawson, but forty-some years after the fact, I have to report that reading As I Lay Dying as a high school senior really soured me on William Faulkner.)

But it did prepare me for all of the college papers I was destined to write. I was successful in college and in my eventual career field in no small part because of the foundation that was built while I sweated out impromptu essays in Ray Lawson’s classroom. I’m not alone in that sentiment. I know many people who would say the same.

Well done, Mr. Lawson, well done. And thank you.

Rochester High School Falcons celebrated the educational leadership of former teacher, Ray Lawson, by naming the school’s lower collaboration space, media center, and mall area in his honor in 2018.

Visitation and Services

Ray H. Lawson was born on December 27, 1918, and passed away on June 1, 2021, and is under the care of Pixley Funeral Home.

Visitation will be held on June 5 and 6, 2021 from 4:00 – 8:00 p.m. at Pixley Funeral Home, 322 W. University Dr., Rochester, Michigan. Instate will be held on June 7, 2021 at 12:30 p.m. at Pixley Funeral Home. Funeral Service will follow on June 7, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Burial – following the Funeral Mass – will be held on June 7, 2021 at Van Hoosen Jones – Stoney Creek Cemetery, 482 E Tienken Rd, Rochester Hills, MI.

Donations in Ray H. Lawson’s memory can be made to Community Foundation of Greater Rochester – Ray Lawson Scholarship.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Cathy Bogart Mariotti Ezrailson says

    Oh but there was so much more to Dr. Lawson than the above description portrays. Only those who were his students could even begin to appreciate all of the things that he could do, did, mastered! He was the only teacher that I had (except for a temporary one) that had a PhD. He supervised a student teacher one year. But, he was always attentive and a model to all his students even then. And, then there was the ballroom dancing that he and his wife expertly displayed at the school dances! He was a great taskmaster, Yet he had a gentle understanding and was a model for his students! I was very fortunate to be able to write a book with my writing partner, David Shonting. I wrote a dedication to him to thank him for all he had meant to me as a teacher and friend. He was an example for my teaching, for my writing, and for my life! Thank you again Dr. Larsen!

    • Taryn L. Sabo says

      I am sorry to say but dad, Mr. Lawson, did not have a PhD. He never wanted to be called Dr. and he stopped at a Masters at U of M. Teaching in the classroom was what he wanted, never leaving the students.

  2. Nan (Reynolds) Drinkard says

    What a well written tribute!

  3. Chuck Mitchell, class of '54 says

    And as I recall, Mr. Lawson painted houses in the summer to supplement his teacher’s income.
    He was not just a guy in a tie who could recite Chaucer. He put in many a blue collar day’s work.
    And he is one of my pantheon of dearly recollected Rochester school teachers; Ms. Gilbert (1st grade),
    Winnie Wilson (8th grade), Bob Rogers (biology), Alma Kayser (Latin), and Eloise Tallant (Drama!).
    The longer I live, the more grateful I am…..Bless ’em all.

  4. Terry Upton says

    He not only was a great, great teacher, he was also a wonderful friend! On the boat “South America” for our class of 53 senior trip!! Spent a whole Sat. with me at the Detroit Library, researching my Senior Term Paper!! What a guy! A great life lived and shared!! Terry Upton

    • Nancy L Crase says

      Hi Terry, this is Nancy Crase and I worked for you at Dillman & Upton in the office about 32 years ago. You were a great 👍 boss as well as was it Brad? But I Remember Todd quite well. Hope you are well. Godspeed. Moved to Port Huron Mi and I’m retired now.

  5. Pat Botkin says

    What a wonderful tribute, Deborah! I wish I’d had Mr. Lawson as a teacher. I met him as a fellow Board Member of Neighborhood House – he was a gentleman and a scholar.

  6. Mitzi Engler Ruswick says

    My mom used to talk about Mr. and Mrs. Lawson being active in their square dancing group. When Mom told him he would have her fourth (and last) child in his class that year, he said “Oh no, not another Engler”! We got a laugh out of that. Ringing in my ears often is his warning about the myth of the infallibility of the printed word. That has served me well.

  7. Tim Irish says

    I’m tipping my hat and bowing my head to Mr. Lawson. I recall the story of an RHS grad who turned in a paper to his English professor at Central Michigan University. The professer gave him an A and commented, “I bet you had Ray Lawson in high school”. I also want to pass on a salute to so many fine Rochester teachers who influenced who I am today. My apologies to those I miss, but here’s to the memory of Mr. Miller, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Moser, Mr. McKenney, Mrs. McKenney, Mr. Murphy, Mrs. Murphy, Mr. Minke, Mr. May, Mr. Judge, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Vandervan, Mr. Lovell, Mr. Kamley, Mr. Jurva, Mrs. Cresswell, Mrs. Flummerfet, Mrs. Klute, Mrs. Woodhead, and my father, Frank Irish.

  8. I came to Ray as a local pharmacist and a wannabe writer. Knowing of his reputation as an English teacher I took my manuscript to him. He returned it the next week, dripping with red ink but also with corrections and the encouragement that the story was worth the time it would take to get it published. It was and so were the next 5 that I asked him for his help over the next 10 years. He’ll always be my hero.

    • Tom Griebe says

      I had Mr. Lawson in 11th grade and then went on to Oakland Community College. My first English paper there came back with a remark – “well done, obviously a Ray Lawson student”. He definitely left a mark on you.

  9. Natalie Manoogian Mosher says

    What a legacy you left Mr.Lawson and such wonderful comments from students over the years. I was in your 4th hour senior English class and concur you were demanding and recall to this day “none gets an A”. Thank you for your dedication to ensuring your students left your class literate!

  10. Judith( Loncar) Popyk says

    Miss Larsen said it all and so well at that.
    Words cannot describe what a great Educator and Humanitarian, Mr Lawson was. He affected my study habits, knowledge of grammar and ability to write. Mr. Lawson was a “mentor ” to me in many ways, especially with my own 32 years of teaching.I used his vocabulary files, spelling and writing techniques in my own teaching. He exposed us to many aspects of literature like Shakspeare and the _Atlantic Monthly.
    Peace and a well deserved rest to you, Mr Lawson.

  11. Kay Johnson says

    I didn’t have Ray as a teacher just a good friend. For many years he and Dale attend our 1959 Class Reunions and then after Dale’s passing he still attended. Our Class mates were always so happy to see him. Ray and I shared Mark the Mailman to help us with things around our yards that we could no long do. RIP Ray and say “Hi” to Mark when you see him. Enjoy a beer you two. Fondly kay j

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