Memories of Dr. Robert Lawrence, longtime York University faculty member who passed away August 7 in Waynesville, N.C., are colorful, nostalgic, descriptive and heartfelt--exactly the way he would expect compositions to be written for his English classes.
The most frequently mentioned, instant memory of Bob's zest for life was his oft-used expression for enjoyment of food, flavors and aromas--"Ummmm!" If you ever shared a meal with Bob, you know this expression of satisfaction.
Dr. Tim McNeese, close colleague of Bob's on the York faculty, described Bob best in this way: "The most renaissance of men...car enthusiast, gardener, grafter of fruit trees, beekeeper. Minister and student of the Word. College English professor. Doctor of Philosophy. A man of Emerson and Thoreau. A poet. A collector of antique oil lamps. And a collector of time. A neighbor, friend, brother. A man after God's own heart. A son of encouragement. A minister of the Gospel. A voice during East Hill classes whose questions make you think...all these things and more...."
Local media spotlighted Bob's diverse interests over the years. One local publication in the early 1980s shared a "Letter to the Editor" from Bob who told of discovering a gardening opportunity in the 15'X100' strip of land that served as a buffer between the sidewalk and the street on which his family lived: "It dawned on me that I had a potential garden right beside my corner lot!" he explained.
"Here in this southeast section of Nebraska, the land is so fertile that I think it would sprout a hoe handle if I watered it good. That first year we had a bumper crop of vegetables. Each year since we've manured and composted, we've grown nearly enough vegetables to feed our family of seven. I don't hesitate to call my gardening an aesthetic experience, and since I teach literature at York College, they call me the 'Poet Plowman.'"
Bob also tilled gardens for others, offering his "poet plowman" services through this written message: "Green shoots of grass here and there...the call of a cardinal in the distance...the sun crossing the celestial equator, moving north...earthworms rising with the thaw...hibernators yawning...trees feeling the rise of sap...a strange uneasiness down inside certain people. You know what it is. It's SPRING...that time of the year when gardeners and golfers start their plowing!"
A much more recent piece featured Bob's interest in antique clocks, old books, bottles and oil lamps and antique furniture. Most of the article focused on his collection of all kinds of clocks--grandfather clocks, miniatures, clocks in china cases, kitchen (Victorian) clocks, shelf clocks, wall clocks and hall clocks, many of which sound off in chimes, bells and gongs, many simultaneously. Those are followed by the return to the constant surround-sound of tick-tocking.
Bob had questioned himself over the years as to whether he should begin to sell off parts of his collections, especially the clocks. "But if I sold them," he added, "do you know where I would be the next day? I'd be out looking for another one. I seem to sell one and buy two," he grinned as the clocks just kept ticking.
One of his most passionate interests was spiritual, and it motivated him to keep close ties to ministry, whether he was gardening, clocking or teaching college English classes. Though Bob and his family were always active members of the East Hill Church of Christ in York, Sundays would often find him in another town filling a pulpit when a church was between preachers or in a rural church that could not afford a full-time minister.
He and Dr. Terry Kite, a professor of physics at York University, traded off preaching responsibilities at several churches over the years. Dr. Kite joined the York faculty in 1967; Bob came the next year. With such shared history at York and in York, one can only imagine the closeness between the two. Dr. Kite shared some memories of frequent travels with Bob and another of his diverse interests--birding.
"We would fill the college bus with students and go out to see the Sandhill Cranes and other birds, but we would also travel together to places like North Dakota, where we and about 10 students went in 1979 to see the total solar eclipse in late February of that year," Dr. Kite explained. "Considering the location and time of year, you can imagine the degree of cold in our experience. But we also did local 'birding' in the York area, discovering a Say's Phoebe nesting under a bridge and a Sage Thrasher in a pasture, both of which are not usually found this far east.
"Bob and I were very different, but our minds jibed," Dr. Kite added. "I miss him. I miss his mind. I miss all the thoughts we shared."
Bob and Ruth Lawrence raised their five children--Sterling, Melody, Loyal, Joy and Noel--in York, and they loved the York Experience that setting provided the family. When Bob retired, he knew he and Ruth might face the challenge of relocation to be nearer their grown children. "We've always thought so highly of York...as a community where people care about each other and where there's a lot of civic pride." Ruth passed away in 2016, and Bob eventually did move to North Carolina. But the children knew where Bob's heart still resided, and they provided transportation for occasional return trips to York.
When Bob retired at the conclusion of the 1994-95 academic years, he received yet another Teacher of the Year award, an annual recognition based on student voting. The students, he said, were the hardest part about transitioning to retirement. "The students," he said modestly, "love me more than I probably deserved."
Because of his dedication to York University and to instilling in his students a love of God, a love of learning and a love of literature and the humanities, the Robert Lawrence Endowed Scholarship Fund was established in 2000 and funded by a bequest from Bob's brother, John Lawrence, as well as countless contributions that have been made in honor of the Lawrences over the years from alumni, friends and family members. That scholarship has been awarded in recent years, and several students have benefited from the fund's earnings.
Several students have benefited from the fund's earnings, according to Aleshia O'Neal, a former York University English faculty member who was mentored by Dr. Lawrence, both during her student years as well as her time as a faculty colleague.
"Few individuals have impacted my life more than Dr. Bob," she said. "He mentored me during my first year as a faculty member as we ate dinners together in his home on Thursday evenings. Then, we bought his house and stayed connected while remodeling and teaching together. Like so many, I loved this man."
Another former student, Kimberlee Tandy, remembers the lifelong impact Dr. Bob's teaching had on her worldview: "My time as a student of Dr. Lawrence taught me to see the world a little differently, broadened my horizons and deepened my understanding of God. My time as his friend brought me joy, lots of fresh produce, knowledge of clocks and trees and hymns, and especially an appreciation for the Word and our Lord. I am a better person, a better musician and a better friend because of him. While Dr. Lawrence began as a beloved professor, he came to be a dear, dear friend."
Rachel (Forehand) Hansen, another former student of Dr. Bob's, spoke of him as a person who could do just about anything and who could teach you to do it, too. "Want to know how to be a beekeeper?" she asked. "Ask Dr. Bob. Need to understand Emerson or Shakespeare or Homer or Dante? Ask Dr. Bob. Want an antique pocket watch as a wedding gift for your soon-to-be husband? Peruse Dr. Bob's collection and have him help pick out just the right one. Need a godly, eloquent man to officiate your wedding? Dr. Bob would drive from Nebraska to Texas to do it. Want to understand the best way to love your spouse? Forgive an enemy? Sing a hymn? Write a letter? Fix your car? Grow beautiful flowers and yummy veggies? Understand and apply scripture? Well, then, Dr. Bob is your man. He didn't just teach me literature; he taught me LIFE!"
Even current students, such as Eliza Rhoda, have developed an appreciation for Bob Lawrence, though they may have had only a brief meeting with him. She writes, "Last spring I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Lawrence, a man that I only knew as a former faculty member whose name was on my scholarship. I went to the meeting unsure of what to say other than, 'So, you like English, too?' But after chatting with him and his son for a few minutes, I learned that there was so much more to Bob Lawrence. I learned about his decades of work in teaching and ministry, about his love for God and his students, and about his mischievous sense of humor.
"During our meeting, he asked me twice about where I saw myself in five years, and his son gently reminded him that he had already asked that question. A few minutes later, he asked again. We assumed this was due to memory issues, until I saw the sly smile as he asked the question once more. He had been playing with us all along. Although my time with Dr. Lawrence was brief, I still remember his bright laugh during that meeting. As I learn more and more about his vast legacy, I wish I had spent a few more minutes getting to hear about all of it from him. He left a lasting impression that will be missed, even by those who only knew him for a few minutes."
To say that his colleagues on the York faculty held him in high regard is an understatement. Just a small sampling generates the kind of sentiment expressed by Dr. Clark Roush as he recalled his first meeting with Bob Lawrence:
"I arrived in York in 1986. At my first division meeting, I sat down in front of a gentleman I had not yet met. I remember him introducing himself in the following way:
Bob: You're the new choir man, correct?
Me: Yes, sir!
Bob: Do you think angels sing?
Me: (thinking what in the world?) Yes, sir!
Bob: Do you think angels were created?
Me: (who is this guy?) No sir - I believe they've always existed?
Bob: So, is music eternal?
That began a friendship and mentorship that lasted 37 years. I cannot imagine my personal, professional or spiritual life without seeing his example and hearing his words of wisdom. He welcomed a young, passionate, opinionated newbie to the college ranks and helped me become who I am today. A "Dr. Bob" clock sits in my office, and now the tick-tock-tick-tock and the chimes will take on additional meaning."
One other longstanding friendship that reflected Bob's priority of personal, family relationships was the close tie with the Tom and Dottie Schulz family. Dottie recalls so many highlights of their kindred spirits, especially those closest to home around the kitchen table. She writes about his penchant for freshly ground coffee and a "Ruth" dessert, a common and frequent occurrence of evenings. And she recalls the academic journey powered by his love of learning:
"Bob loved words, Bob loved poetry and English literature. He was a lifelong learner. He decided to take some English classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He enjoyed the first class, so he decided to take another, and then another, and then another. Finally one of the professors asked him why he had not applied for a doctorate. He explained he wasn’t really interested in a doctorate; he just loved to learn. The professor explained to him that if he would just take a few more classes and write a dissertation, he would have his doctorate, so that is how he became Dr. Robert Lawrence. He wrote his dissertation on transcendentalism ….the worst part of writing the dissertation was to type the word, transcendentalism, hundreds of times."
Dottie reflects on a time when the Lawrences, especially Bob, stepped in and ministered to the Schulz family in ways above and beyond normal friendships: "During Tom’s last months, Bob came to be with him every afternoon for several hours. They had beautiful conversations together. Both of Tom’s arms had broken because of the cancer, so Bob wrote letters for him that Tom dictated. And then just before 10 each evening, he and Larry Light would come to the house to help Tom get into bed. Tom asked Bob to please make sure I had a good car. Bob went to Omaha, and found a really nice used Volvo sedan and arranged for Tom to buy it for me. Bob was always a phone call away if I needed him, and after Tom died, he always saw that I had wood to burn and that my garden was tilled."
Anyone who knew Bob Lawrence may be inspired by such an example of selfless service, but they would not be surprised. We are convinced that his first glimpse of heaven will have evoked his signature, responsive expression..."Ummmmm!"
Two services will be held: a Funeral Service on Sunday, August 13, 2023 at 2 pm at
the Biltmore Church of Christ in Asheville, NC, and a Memorial Service will be held at the East Hill Church of Christ in York, NE on Sunday, August 20, 2023 at 2 pm. A private graveside service for the family will
be held at Greenwood Cemetery in York, NE.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the following: Dr. Robert Lawrence Endowed Scholarship at York University, Gander Brook Christian Camp, or Wisconsin Christian Youth Camp.