A Life: John E. Lawe; ‘He was there for all of us’

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    Jean and John Lawe at their home in Norwich, Vt., in December 2007. Their dog Hamish is in the background. John Lawe served on the Norwich Selectboard for 17 years. The portrait was for Chad Finer's "Faces of Norwich" project. (Chad Finer photograph) Chad Finer photograph

  • John Lawe, second to the right, at a Norwich Lions Club ceremony for induction of officers in June 2019. Lawe was the civic organization's longtime treasurer. (Stephen Flanders photograph) Stephen Flanders photograph

  • John Lawe during his school days in London. Lawe went on to earn a medical degree, moving to the U.S. at age 30. He joined the pathology staff at what is now Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in 1963 and also taught at Dartmouth College's medical school. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/21/2021 8:48:56 PM
Modified: 11/21/2021 8:48:41 PM

NORWICH — After serving on the Norwich Selectboard for 17 years, John Lawe lost his re-election bid — along with another incumbent — in a “wave of change” on Town Meeting Day in 2000.

A “fixture in town politics for years,” the Valley News wrote the next day, Lawe finished nearly 400 votes behind Douglas Hoffman, a first-time candidate who had lived in Norwich for a dozen years and ran a scientific consulting company.

A candidate’s response to rejection at the polls by their neighbors can become a topic of conversation in small-town politics.

“After losing an election, some people go back in a corner,” said Neil Fulton, whose time on the Selectboard overlapped with Lawe for a few years.

That wasn’t Lawe’s nature, however. “He stayed involved in the community,” Fulton said.

Lawe, a longtime pathologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, died Oct. 14, following a stroke. He was 92.

On a Saturday afternoon in early November, Norwich’s old guard, turned out en masse for Lawe’s memorial service at Tracy Hall — a fitting tribute site. During his time on the Selectboard, Lawe helped shepherd major renovations to the town office building and community gathering place.

With the hall’s large windows open to draw in the crisp autumn air, Stephen Lawe thanked the 150 people for coming out — and wearing masks — to his father’s service.

His father, the town’s health officer up until his death, would have appreciated the COVID-19 precautions. “He would want everyone to be safe,” Stephen Lawe said.

John Lawe was in his early 70s when he joined the fledgling Norwich FAST Squad. He trained the town’s first responders in how to make their jobs safer by reducing the risk of spreading bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and hepatitis C.

“He was there for all of us,” said Linda Cook, a Norwich first responder and former Selectboard member.

Town Clerk Bonnie Munday was among the FAST Squad members who Lawe helped with their studies as they worked on earning national certification.

“He was good at explaining things and he never got frustrated,” Munday said.

“He was always trying to help, but he didn’t care about getting the credit,” she added. “He did more than people will ever realize.”

Lawe and his wife, Jean, both grew up outside of London during World War II. They survived the Blitz, the 1940-41 German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom.

John, who served in the British Army Royal Corps of Signals, met Jean at a party in London. After their meeting, he “promptly wrote her a letter, asking her to a concert,” Stephen, their only child, recalled in his eulogy.

“Apparently, Mum, her two sisters, and parents spent quite some time trying to decipher what the letter actually said,” Stephen added. (Throughout his medical career, Lawe did his part in keeping up doctors’ reputation for illegible penmanship.)

Shortly after they were married in 1959, the couple followed one of John’s mentors to Boston, where he conducted cancer research. In 1963, Lawe accepted a staff position in the pathology department at what is now Dartmouth-Hitchcock. He also taught at Dartmouth College’s medical school.

The couple settled in Norwich’s “boondocks,” as Jean described what the outskirts of town toward Union Village was like nearly 60 years ago. They embraced small-town New England life, including learning to make maple syrup. (Both hung onto their British accents, however.)

Lawe joined the Norwich Lions Club. “It was great way to get to know people who were interested in helping out in the community,” his wife said.

Lawe embodied the service organization’s commitment to helping people in need, said Philip Wheeler, a club member who spoke at the memorial service. When the Lions raffled off firewood to raise money for social causes, Lawe was happy to pick up an ax or chainsaw.

Stephen Lawe joked that while some adult children must cajole aging parents to give up their car keys, he had to talk to his father about putting down his chainsaw when he turned 90.

His father was also an accomplished carpenter and was learning to play the cello. For exercise, he took to running. “He liked to stop and pick up cans and bottles that he would pile into heaps to collect later,” Stephen Lawe said.

The Lawes, who were married for 62 years, traveled extensively. They canoed wild rivers in Costa Rica, saved newly hatched sea turtles in the Seychelles, an island republic in the western Indian Ocean, and were chased by an elephant in Kenya.

When Stephen was 10, his parents took him out of school for a couple months to embark on a trip around the world. “I can still remember walking the streets of Bombay and seeing the abject poverty and suffering,” Stephen said. “In his quiet way, my father shared these experiences, not seeking to drive home a trite message, but allowing life’s complexities to unfold.”

Back in their adopted home, the Lawes were mainstays at the Norwich Fair, which the Lions Club has overseen since 1989. John sold ride tickets at night, and the next morning he’d return with Jean in their pickup truck to collect trash.

“John did not like to be the star of the show nor in the limelight,” Wheeler said. “He made a difference, but quietly, in all things that he did.”

After his tenure on the Selectboard ended, Lawe kept a hand in local government.

For a decade, he served as chairman of the Norwich Development Review Board, which has a big say in what building projects go forward in town.

Lawe helped navigate change in a community that in recent times has attracted more and more wealthy newcomers who “bring their own ideas” on how the town should look and function, as one resident put it.

“I suppose he was comfortable with what Norwich was becoming and he was also appreciative of the town’s history,” said Stephen Lawe, who lives in Etna. “He saw the value in change.”

In his eulogy, Stephen Lawe summed up his father this way: “Without much talking, he showed us all how to live a compassionate, giving, and loving life.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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