Tony Lawrence didn’t have any family in Los Angeles, so the teachers and students at Milken Community Schools became one for him. As he lay on his deathbed Nov. 29 at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, more than a dozen teachers and administrators filled the room. It was so crowded, the nurses could barely get in.
After a yearslong battle with lung cancer, Lawrence could no longer speak, and it was unclear how much he heard or understood. But his friends and colleagues, including Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman, chatted and read text messages aloud as they came in from those wishing Lawrence well, until sometime in the late afternoon, when Lawrence stopped breathing.
“He just sort of slipped away,” Weisserman said. “It was actually beautiful in its own way.”
The high school social studies teacher known for his humor and warmth died last week at the age of 65. Milken held a memorial service for Lawrence on Dec. 1, where students and faculty shared their memories and grief.
Lawrence’s brother, William, who traveled here from Indiana, said he was “just totally overwhelmed” by the outpouring of affection and mourning from Milken community members. “We couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Members of the Milken community also took to the school’s student news website, The Roar, to remember Lawrence, describing how he was able to inspire students and tease them without offending them. Some credited him with their choice of college majors and careers.
“I never had a teacher that pushed their students to reach their full potential as much as he did,” Milken 2017 graduate Hannah Newman wrote. “Mr. Lawrence was the most dedicated, caring, loving, intelligent, and humble person I’ve encountered in my life so far.”
Anthony Carl Lawrence was born on Jan. 22, 1952, in Mooresville, Ind., to Patricia and Lawson Lawrence. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in secondary social studies education at Indiana University in Bloomington, he returned to Mooresville High School, his alma mater, as a teacher. He moved to California in the late 1970s, settling in Orange County. He taught at a number of Southern California private schools before Milken hired him in 2001 to teach subjects including United States history and Advanced Placement Government.
On The Roar website, students recounted jokes they shared with Lawrence as well as his tendency to spontaneously dance in the hallways and at school assemblies.
On Facebook, students also remembered Lawrence’s humor, for instance recalling a yardstick he would use to jokingly threaten them. But his jokes, even the teasing ones, were meant to show he loved them. “He would never heckle somebody he didn’t,” Weisserman said.
“For him, teaching was almost like being in the clergy.”
— Gary Weisserman
The headmaster said Lawrence took charge of civic activities such as mock debates and Election Day events, going out of his way to educate students about the democratic process. He also advised Milken’s chapter of the Junior State of America and often emceed holiday parties and other school events.
Lawrence had struggled with lung cancer for years, but his condition worsened in the past 10 months, prompting him to use an oxygen tank and a wheelchair. He stopped teaching two months ago when one of his lungs collapsed, Weisserman said.
Weisserman said that even while confined to the hospital, Lawrence was eager to get back to teaching, saying, “ ‘I just want to check in on my kids. I just want to be back where I belong.’ For him, teaching was almost like being in the clergy, in that it’s not your job, it’s your work.”
William Lawrence said his younger brother’s nature — warm, funny and a bit mischievous — was evident well before he arrived at Milken, as was his passion for teaching, which was apparent as early as junior high school.
He said when a UCLA nurse called him to inform him of his brother’s death, she wept on the phone, saying that she had grown close to Tony in the short time she knew him. “He had that impact on a lot of people,” he said.