Track legend Lawrence set for Hall of Fame induction
Updated 11:27 am, Thursday, June 18, 2015
One of the reasons why hall of fames were created was to reward careers that stood out from the crowd. After glancing at the legendary run of Staples track and cross country coach John “Laddie” Lawrence, it’s easy to see why he would be the perfect candidate.
Already a member of the FCIAC and state coaching halls, Lawrence will be one of 30 inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Rochester, Minnesota on Friday, June 19.
More than 1,700 meet wins across the three running seasons for close to 50 years, dozens of conference and state titles and a legacy that will be close to impossible to match are just several of Lawrence’s credentials.
“It was a surprise when they called me to tell me,” Lawrence said. “I thought it may happen after I retire but not while I was still coaching; I was very moved.”
From the time Lawrence and childhood friend Paul McNulty threw snowballs at older kids and were forced to scamper away in double time, running has always been a part of his life. Lawrence grew up in Westport and soon found running to be a passion.
“We always realized we could run fast at an early age,” McNulty said. “We had to run from the older kids in the neighborhood. We didn’t always win that race, but sometimes we did.”
Lawrence began playing football at Staples in addition to track. Eager to replace the gridiron with more running, he and a pair of classmates went to Frank Dornfeld — the AD at the time — and asked to start a cross country program. Dornfeld agreed if the trio could find a coach.
“We went to Beck Brown, who was a history teacher, and we knew that Beck had run at Columbia,” Lawrence said. “We knew he had cross country experience so we sat down with him one afternoon; I think he was surprised to see us come in. We convinced him that he could coach the team.”
The power of persuasion worked, and the program was up and running for his junior season. Staples went 7-3 in Year 1 and 10-0 the following season, including placing 12th at the State Open.
“That sport hasn’t looked back since,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence starred in track, winning the State Open title in the 400 meter run in 1964, and he still holds school records — including in the 4x200 relay with childhood friend McNulty.
Lawrence’s journey then took a turn when Southern Arkansas was the lone school to offer him a full scholarship. The program was looking to expand its athletics program, and Lawrence was one of 12 to get a full ride to the school.
“It was like going back in time a little bit; Westport in the 1960s and going back to Arkansas,” Lawrence said. “It wasn’t backwards, just different.”
While at Magnolia, Lawrence was a resident assistant at a time when desegregation was in its infancy. His wing at school was the first to break down the color barrier, and it wasn’t a coincidence.
“I was the only northern resident assistant, so I probably had more of a diverse background than most of the RA’s there,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence returned home after college and immediately began contributing to the Staples running tradition. In the space of 10 years, Lawrence would become the head coach of all three programs he had a strong influence on as a student.
On the track, the peak of Lawrence’s career came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Wreckers reeled off 142 straight dual meet victories over a six-year period. Like any perfectionist, Lawrence vividly recalls the unusual circumstances that the streak came to a close.
“We were made to compete in a dual meet against Stamford during April vacation,” Lawrence recalled. “We only had 17 of 54 kids; if we had one other kid at the meet we would have won because we lost the meet by three points.”
No problem, Staples recovered and won another 80 meets.
His teams have remained competitive to this day, largely due to the tireless dedication he puts forth that undeniably rubs off on his students.
“He’s willing to give more than any other coach I’ve