John Barker Lawson: Lawyer. Music lover. Arts champion. Uncle. Born June 18, 1926, in Toronto; died Oct. 12, 2021, in Toronto, of pneumonia, aged 95.
A lawyer by profession, John Lawson made careful preparations for his passing. In his final days, his nieces and nephews found that he had helpfully provided a living will to relieve them of any anxiety over end-of-life decisions and had also left instructions for his funeral. He’d even gone so far as to write his own obituary.
But that was where he fell short.
While he included a fulsome list of family members, John seemed to have forgotten to mention a few things about himself. Like the fact that he’d been named the Order of Canada in 2014. Or that he’d presided over the boards of Toronto’s Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall – in fact, he was part of the team that got the latter concert venue built. Then there were his key roles in starting up the Glenn Gould Foundation and the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and his volunteer service on the boards of many other music and arts organizations.
John’s modest obit was in keeping with the man his family loved. Many of his relatives were only vaguely aware of his achievements, reminded now and again when he was given another award or honorary doctorate. To them, he was Uncle John, the lean, lanky gent with the wavy silver hair who knew how to sport a cravat; the host of many a lively party at his handsome Victorian-era house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.
Those parties would always be swarming with young people – and not just with his various great-nieces and great-nephews, who delighted in racing up and down the many staircases. You would also meet students from around the world, many of them musicians, who had come to study at the University of Toronto, John’s alma mater, and for whom he provided essentially free room and board.
John had inherited his love of music. His father, Hugh, was an amateur singer who also served on the Massey Hall board; his mother, Muriel, took her children to the opera. John’s maternal grandfather, Nova Scotia judge Tecumseh Sherman Rogers, provided for his piano lessons as a boy. (John later acknowledged that kindness by creating a $25,000 award in his grandfather’s name for U of T music students.) As a young lawyer, John joined the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, where he sang for 26 years. He eventually became a board member and, yes, chaired that one, too.
People first meeting John could find him gruff and brusque. But under the flinty façade was a heart of gold. John was not only enormously generous in his financial support of music and community groups, but also with his time and his affections. When his younger sister Ann’s husband, David Hughson, died in 1993, John became like a father to their four children.
Along with music, John had a love of nature and the outdoors. As children, John, his older brother Hugh (a.k.a. Roddy) and Ann spent their summers “roughing it” at the rustic family cottage on one of the small, rocky islands in Georgian Bay. The Lawsons and Hughsons continued to congregate there over the years and John seldom missed a summer of swimming, canoeing and sailing his beloved Laser.
Speaking with John over the years, I was always struck by his passionate concern for Toronto’s artistic well-being. He was quick to offer his opinion about everything from a new arts festival to a new opera. Sometimes he was harshly critical, but he could also be effusive in his praise. His favourite adjective was “fabulous.”
There was something fabulous about John himself: The great energy and enthusiasm lurking beneath the stern, lawyerly countenance, the deep love for his family and community that no amount of crankiness could camouflage. And when he did finally crack a smile, the sun came out.
Martin Morrow is John Lawson’s nephew-in-law.
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