DUNEDIN — The sounds of birds, bagpipes and, most fittingly, laughter wafted through the trees of John R. Lawrence Pioneer Park on Sunday afternoon as Dunedin residents memorialized it’s newest namesake, the humble and jubilant man who helped craft the city.
Lawrence, who died of liver disease in 2012 at the age of 66, served as Dunedin’s city manger from April 1985 to January 2006, making him the longest-serving city manager in Pinellas County’s history at the time of his retirement. The city council, community members and even one of the city’s founding pioneers gave a rare unanimous decision to add his name to the park in the heart of the city’s downtown last year, said Maureen Freany, Lawrence’s former assistant city manager. Sunday’s unveiling of memorial plaques telling Lawrence’s and the pioneers’ stories were the final touches on a park worthy of his service.
“Dunedin was a sleepy town with dust balls and vacant stores before John came along,” Freany said. “He loved visiting European cities and bringing little pieces, like their parks, back home. It’s a place for people to share and really celebrate the community.”
In the 21 years Lawrence was in office, he oversaw the creation of a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant and reverse osmosis water plant, and was a driving force behind the revitalization of the picturesque downtown. He disbanded the city’s 100-year-old police department and contracted with Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office instead, saving more than $2 million annually. Numerous downtown landmarks, such as the library, recreation complex, Dunedin Stadium and community center, wouldn’t exist without his leadership, said Dunedin Vice Mayor Julie Scales.
And, of course, the park wouldn’t be the hub of activity it’s become, with concerts in its bandshell and family movie showings on its soft sod, without Lawrence
“Not only was it something John worked on in the city, but it was literally right behind his home so what more appropriate way to honor him but to honor him in his own backyard,” said Vinnie Luisi, director of Dunedin’s Historical Society. “He worked in the town, but he really lived in this town.”
Lawrence was one of the “easiest going people you’d ever meet,” said his friend and neighbor, Circuit Court Judge Jack St. Arnold. He was humble, funny, and always tried to mediate differences, which at times was like “herding cats,” St. Arnold said. In his time off, he could be seen running through downtown, or hanging off the back of garbage trucks before spending a day in the shoes of city employees became politically popular. When it came time to “bust chops,” he didn’t mince words, St. Arnold said.
“John was a historian and in the years that I knew him I never felt he had the sense that he was part of the history of the city and he was, indeed, making history,” Arnold said. “If there’s anything we can learn from him, I think it’s that when you die, die exhausted. Just do it all. He did a lot, and hopefully we can too.”