Remembering Al Lawson: A 'born counselor'

Oct 7, 2013

Al Lawson, the first school counselor at the new Barnstable High School in 1957, died earlier this year. He was 88.
Credit Courtesy photo from family

Osterville resident Al Lawson has been called a "born counselor." He was the first guidance counselor at the new Barnstable High School when it opened in 1957, and it was a job that fit him perfectly.

Today, there are stacks of letters and cards in the Lawson house in Centerville. They're piled neatly on tables and footstools and on the brick hearth. They're addressed to Al Lawson's wife Adrienne, and his two sons, Carl and Kurt. Most all of them include a story or two about Lawson's kindness and compassion.

"We've got letter here from," Adrienne said, "you'd be amazed, they said he changed my life, just by taking the time to talk to me. And tell me that I was worth going on to school. Or that my family life was maybe not that great, but that he would look out for me, that he would watch after me."

Lawson spent a career helping young people be happy, make good choices, and have successful lives. In his retirement, he sold real estate. Particularly land. It was a second career choice that his son Kurt didn't understand.

"But I've seen some of these cards now," Kurt said. "And there's this card from this one woman who he sold a home to. And she said he counseled me into a home. She said, I drove him crazy. He took me to, what seemed like hundreds of homes, over years he was showing her homes, and she said he never got frustrated. And she says, he counseled me into a home. He was still a guidance councilor. A born counselor, I suppose."

Carl, Kurt and Adrianne understand the stories of warmheartedness and benevolence, because the family saw the same thing at home.

"He was sensitive, caring, encouraging," said Carl Lawson. "And someone who had a tremendous amount of empathy. And though he never lost his temper, I always wanted to do a good job for him, just because of the example he set."

Kurt and his mom Adrianne say the same thing -- Al Lawson never raised his voice, and he always treated them with kindness.

"You know, he walked in the door, he was always just loving, compassionate, sensitive, caring person," Kurt said. "Never, ever a bad mood."

Al Lawson spent his own childhood and high school years in Brockton, MA, Kurt said, occasionally visiting Cape Cod in the summers.

"He was the son of Swedish immigrants who came to the country," Kurt said. "His father passed away when he was quite young, when he was in his grade-school years, and he was raised largely by his mother, along with his younger brother and older sister."

As a boy he played the drums, and did what he could to help his family. His newspaper route was so long that it included two trips home on his bicycle to load more papers. He also did well in school. So well that after graduating from Brockton High School, he was accepted directly into the Naval Officers' Training School. But his asthma prevented him from attending. So he enlisted in the Coast Guard and went to teacher's college.

After graduation, Lawson taught math at several high schools before attending graduate school at Harvard University. It was at Harvard that he met many of his life-long friends. Lawson also volunteered for 31 years, interviewing potential Harvard students. He was a proud Harvard alumnus, but perhaps our of concern for sounding boastful, Kurt Lawson says his dad rarely mentioned his alma mater.

"For someone who was so humble and so modest," Kurt said, "and he would never tell people about that, but he was a very very proud and dedicated Harvard graduate."

Lawson loved Cape Cod. And for more than a decade beginning in his early 20s, he would come to Osterville each summer to work at the Wianno Club in various positions. He moved to Barnstable full-time around 1956, and soon after he met his future wife Adrianne, a 5th grade teacher. They were set up by friends at a dinner party, and they spent the next 54 years talking, traveling, and just enjoying being together.

"The things that we always hear," she said, "is that all the girls at the high school, just wanted to have him as the counselor and always wanted to wait to have him as their counselor and they were very disappointed when he became engaged."

When the new Barnstable High School opened in 1957, Lawson was the first guidance counselor. He would go on to set up the school's guidance counselor program and contribute to dozens of other school and community programs and initiatives designed to help young people. But he dreaded paperwork. And over the years, he fended off efforts for him to take on higher administrative positions, because his wife says nothing made him happier than working with kids.

"Many of them," she said, "even though they weren't assigned to him, they would come to him and say, would you please see me, Or, could you please see me? We had parents calling up the home, Do you think it's possible for your husband to see…?' I had my gynecologist, called me one night and said, 'You know, I've never done this before, I've never looked up someone's number to call them at home. But is it possible for your husband to call me?' Oh, of course, of course, anytime."'

Former student Tara Broadhurst spent four years with Lawson as her guidance counselor during the 1980s -- four years that he watched over her and advocated for her, particularly when the possibility was raised that she learned differently than other students.

"He was so thoughtful," she said, "he definitely followed through. He checked in with me. I checked in with him. He was definitely my go-to person for four years."

Former student Lori DeMartin says not only did Lawson help her become the first in her family to go to college, he also showed his compassion at her prom, when her date left early and she was on her own for the final songs.

"I kind of was trying to do that whole looking cool even though I wasn't feeling that way," DeMartin said. "I'm pretty sure I was probably going to skip off to the bathroom, and Mr. Lawson came over to me and said, 'May I have this dance?' And he danced with me. Now, it's not a girl's dream to dance with their adult guidance counselor at their prom. But even then as a kid, I knew what he was trying to do and it meant a lot to me."

Outside of school, Lawson was an athlete. He learned to ski in his twenties, and he continued to take ski trips dozens of times each year with his son Carl, right up until last year when he was 87 years old.

He also continued to do volunteer work in his retirement. For several years, he volunteered at the Osterville Historical Museum, leading tours and talking about the historic boats there.

Al Lawson died on Aug. 15 after suffering from an intestinal infection. He was 88 years old.