After 36 years, John E. Lawrence to retire: Beloved WCC performing arts instructor will be missed by students and colleagues

John E. Lawrence with his guitar

John E. Lawrence leans back to recall memories from his many years of teaching. Lawrence will retire this spring after 36 years as one of Washtenaw’s most beloved performing arts instructors. Gray Bancroft | Washtenaw Voice

 

By TAYLOR ROBINSON
Staff Writer

In a 1962 episode of the Twilight Zone, a man watches children playing from the window of his nursing home. They shout and laugh, playing kick the can. The man longs to feel young again and believes that if he returns to childish activities, his youthfulness will return. He gathers most of the nursing home inhabitants to sneak out of the house, tiptoeing down the stairs. When a reluctant inhabitant follows out behind them, he sees a group of children laughing and playing. They are indeed young again.

This is how John E. Lawrence, Washtenaw Community College music performance instructor, chooses to live his life. He believes that if he does the same things that he did as a kid, he’d continued to stay youthful. Anyone who knows him will tell you, it worked.

Although he’ll be retiring this spring after 36 years as one of WCC’s most beloved performing arts instructors, Lawrence has assured faculty, staff and students that he’ll be back to visit. But he also wants to get out and enjoy himself.

“I want to retire when I can still have fun. When I can still make a difference in life,” Lawrence said. “When I can still grow. I can still learn.”

This departure from WCC will mark a new chapter in Lawrence’s life, and it just so happens to fall on another life milestone.

The semester will end on May 4, Lawrence’s 60th birthday, making him retirement eligible.

When Lawrence first came to WCC, he came as a student. Morris Lawrence, well known jazz musician and legendary WCC instructor took John under his wing and became his mentor.

“He was the first teacher I ever had that made education fun, made learning fun,” John said. “The guy just had a way of explaining things in a way that made sense.”

As John continued to take class after class, Morris approached him and suggested he become an instructor. Baffled, John replied that he didn’t know how to teach … yet. Morris pushed and WCC is lucky that he did. Turns out that John has an uncanny way of getting through to his students.

“Every time I see a student get it, it’s like a lightbulb goes off,” John said. “They’ve been struggling and struggling with something, and then all of a sudden they understand. And they’re able to apply it and you see the growth instantly.”

John E. Lawrence

WCC legend Morris Lawrence, middle, who forged the college’s music program and its close connection with jazz, plays with John E. Lawrence, right, who followed in his footsteps, leading the jazz band and teaching music at the college for 36 years. John E. Lawrence | Courtesy Photo

Since becoming a part-time instructor in 1979 and full-time in 2000, John certainly made his mark on the music program. He’s created three certificate programs, 22 new courses and written 16 instructional guitar books, some even for his students.

His students. This is what John will miss the most about teaching at WCC.

“I’m going to miss the sound of students practicing in the lobby [of the Morris Lawrence building] or sitting on the floor, playing their guitars,” John said, lightly laughing to himself in reminiscence.

His students will miss him, too. As a child, John Hunter, now 51-year-old music student from Whitmore Lake, saw John Lawrence perform in one of his previous bands.

“I said to myself, ‘If I could ever learn to keep up with that guy, maybe I’ll have a chance at it,’” Hunter said. Although Hunter plays guitar, John urged him to pursue singing in his Performance Workshop Ensemble course. “Johnny, being the kind of person that he is, gets you out of your comfort zone. He puts you in a situation where you’re not comfortable or not familiar because that’s the way he teaches,” Hunter said.

John also approaches each student differently because each student is at a different level musically. “The way that Johnny teaches is phenomenal because he takes you right where you are and dog-gone-it he’s going to make a musician out of you,” Hunter said smiling.

33-year-old broadcast arts student Rachel Elliott-Golema couldn’t agree more. “He is just the most knowledgeable instructor, I think, at this school. He’s so passionate about what he’s teaching and it’s a very warm environment,” said Elliott-Golema. “He’s a good guy.”

Among the students, John will also miss those he credits for his success at WCC. Larry Whitworth, former WCC president, hired John as a part-time instructor and John says he wouldn’t be here without him. Roger Palay, former vice president of instruction, helped hire John as a full-time instructor 15 years ago after being part-time for 21 years.

Now a part-time instructor for math, science, and health, Palay’s grown closer to John over the years.

“He’s been a fantastic faculty member who’s gone out of his way for the school and the students,” Palay said. “He’s always been wonderful and thinks of his students first.”

One of the many who impacted John’s career, Joy Garrett, director of curriculum and assessment, said John has shown a strong commitment to his students and the college.

“John’s been a wonderful colleague. He’s shown a dedication to the needs of students and preparing them for their future career,” Garrett said. “I’ve always been impressed with his willingness to go the extra mile for the college by performing at so many different events. He’s been a pleasure to work with and will be greatly missed.”

John plans on staying busy after he retires.

“Turning 60 is monumental. I wanted to retire while I still had energy to pursue some other things,” John said.

An artist also by hand, John commented that he’s put drawing on the back burner. Jon Lockard, long-time art instructor at WCC encouraged John Lawrence to indulge in more than one passion. Lockard recently passed away on March 25 and will be greatly missed by John Lawrence.

In retirement, Lawrence hopes to have more time for the hobbies he’s practiced since childhood – playing pool, practicing martial arts and listening to records for hours on end. In these activities, he will always stay young.

 

John E. Lawrence retirement reception

What: John E. Lawrence retirement reception
Where:  Morris Lawrence building
When: April 21, 3-5 p.m

 

Brief of History Alive: Standing on the shoulders of giants

John Lawrence’s greatest honor at WCC is being asked to be one of the “giants” represented in a stage play honoring African Americans who’ve made an impact in Washtenaw County, he said. Fifth-grade through high school students will portray the life of Lawrence.

“Even people in the community have respect for him, which is pretty cool,” Maria Johnson said, 29-year-old part-time student from Ann Arbor. Johnson volunteers for a ministry that promotes the arts in Ypsilanti.

What: History Alive: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Where:  Towsley Auditorium, WCC Morris Lawrence Building
When: May 9, 5 p.m.
For more information contact Minister Debby Mitchell 734-709-8800 after 5:30 p.m.

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