Lawson readies for hall of fame induction

MIDDLEBURY — St. Johnsbury native and former Middlebury College coach and athletic director Tom Lawson first caught the coaching bug as an athlete at St. Johnsbury Academy.
Lawson, who on Saturday night in South Burlington will be inducted into the Vermont Sports Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a coach and administrator at Middlebury and Proctor High School (see sidebar), said he figured out his career path early on.
“I always knew in the back of my mind I could do this. I played for good coaches at St. Johnsbury Academy. But I was always thinking if I could do it, I might do it a different way,” Lawson said. “The Xs and Os in particular. It was what I wanted to do. And I wanted to be involved with young people.”
But before his Proctor soccer and basketball teams won state championships in the 1960s, before his Panther teams in those sports became some of the most successful in school history, and before he oversaw a Middlebury athletics program that blossomed into an NCAA Division III powerhouse, Lawson paid his dues, although he readily admits he also got a few breaks and some helping hands along the way.
“I challenge young people, if they would listen, if they want to hear what I went through, sometimes it makes an impression,” he said. “What I’ve got, I appreciate now.”
Back in St. Johnsbury, where he played four sports, Lawson credits two people for seeing something in him: St. Johnsbury Academy athletic director and football coach Jim Burlingame and his then girlfriend, Phyllis, to whom he has been married 57 years. 
“Jim Burlingame was instrumental in turning my life around, and certainly my wife,” he said.
When Lawson graduated from the academy, he became the first member of his family to ever attend college, entering the University of Vermont. But after a year their family circumstances changed; Lawson preferred not to discuss the details, but he had to stay in St. Johnsbury and take a job.
Burlingame stepped in, knowing of Lawson’s interest in coaching and education, and took him on as a graduate assistant to the football program. And Burlingame persuaded Lawson to go back to UVM for a half-year, and then pointed him toward Springfield College in Massachusetts; Lawson added that Phyllis also insisted he go to Springfield. 
“His mentoring and guidance got me to go back to UVM,” he said. “And then he was very instrumental in my being accepted and transferring to Springfield College to continue my ambition to coach and be involved in education.”
It was not easy for the couple who married in 1958 to work together toward Lawson earning his degree in 1961.
He also worked nights and weekends, pumping gas, while Phyllis took a job with a phone company. Their oldest daughter was also born during the Springfield years.
 “All of my time I was down at Springfield I worked nights and went to school days. She worked days. It was a haul,” Lawson said.
But things fell into place more easily afterward. Lawson interviewed twice in Massachusetts, but the offer came in from the Craftsbury Academy in northern Vermont — athletic director and soccer coach — and he took it. 
“It was a great experience for me,” Lawson said. “I got experience with the organizational and administrative part of sports.”
Then the Proctor athletic director and coaching job opened up after the young family’s two years in Craftsbury. 
“Life’s a journey, and there are lots of bumps, but sometimes you bounce the right way. I got down there and things really went well for my wife and me,” Lawson said. “From there I was able to jump to Middlebury College.”
Again, someone saw something in him, Lawson said.
“Some people recommended they look at a high school person,” he said. “So I took the soccer job and the assistant basketball job. So I said to myself, I guess like the Fuller Brush man I got my foot in the door.”
Before long, he became the assistant athletic director. In 1977, the director of athletics job opened up. Lawson was the only candidate without a Middlebury College background, but he prevailed. He recalled being in Atlanta at the NCAA Division I tournament when then President Olin Robison called him.
 “He got me on the phone and said, ‘Just to keep people happy, would you accept the job on an interim basis, interim in the sense you would be under review?” Lawson recalled. “I said any job I take I assume I’m under review, so if I don’t do well I won’t stay. Obviously you’ll make changes. I said it doesn’t affect me at all except it will make me work a little harder. So that’s how we started out, and there was nothing ever said from that point on.”
Lawson was asked if that meant he had done a good job.
“I guess so,” he said. “I got out of there before I got fired.”
The honor Lawson will receive at a Saturday night banquet at 7 p.m. at the Doubletree by Hilton Burlington on Williston Road is one among many. He was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and earned the ECAC’s James Lynah Distinguished Service award in 2007. During his Proctor years he was honored by the Rutland Downtown Athletic Club for outstanding service to the youth of the Rutland region.
But he said Saturday will be especially meaningful because he knows many of his former colleagues and athletes will attend. 
“I appreciate it, and I know I will be touched by the people who are there,” Lawson said.
When asked what he remembered most fondly about the years before he and Phyllis retired to Chatham, Mass., Lawson talked about his colleagues, and he told two stories.
One dated back to his first year at Middlebury, when the drinking age was 18. Lawson imposed a rule that anyone caught drinking would be kicked off the team. He said he quickly realized the rule might be too harsh.
“It was not long before I realized it was a stupid thing to say, but it was too late to back out the first year,” he said.
At the end of the season, a player was caught just before the team was set for an ECAC tournament game. Lawson stood by the rule.
“I said that I personally probably have made a mistake, but because this is a policy and everybody else on the team has been able to live by it, I will go forth by what is in place,” he recalled.
Now, Lawson, said, that player is a successful businessman and “a large owner in the St. Louis Blues hockey team” who has told him, “he had no hostility toward me and felt that was a growing moment in his life.”
The other story was about a basketball player from a tough background who was struggling at Middlebury. Lawson felt he had helped the athlete succeed at the college. That player a few years back asked Lawson to speak on his behalf when he was inducted into his Massachusetts high school hall of fame.
Lawson summed up.
“Most of all, it’s the people,” he said. “It’s just been a wonderful experience for me, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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