Remembering a great Georgia teacher lost to COVID-19

Many former students are mourning the death of beloved Georgia band teacher Robert Lawrence. Photo by Elena Webber for Odyssey Media Group of Clarke Central High School.
Many former students are mourning the death of beloved Georgia band teacher Robert Lawrence. Photo by Elena Webber for Odyssey Media Group of Clarke Central High School.

Dr. Robert Lawrence was beloved band teacher at Clarke Central High School in Athens

Here is a tribute to a Georgia educator lost this summer to COVID-19 by Peter Smagorinsky, a University of Georgia education professor.

Dr. Robert Lawrence made an lasting impression on Clarke Central High School in Athens, where the student Odyssey Media Group assembled a tribute. One of the student recollections quoted in this tribute and a photo by student Elena Webber of Dr. Lawrence are from the Odyssey Media Group.

I also added a comment to Smagorinsky’s piece from a dad about his child’s band experience with Lawrence.

By Peter Smagorinsky

July, 2020, was a tragic month around the world. In the United States, thousands of people lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. Among them was the highly respected and much-beloved band leader and public school educator, Dr. Robert Lawrence.

The 61-year-old had retired from Fitzgerald High School in Ben Hill County only a few months before. He had taught there for a year after spending 10 years at Clarke Central High School in Athens, moving down state to be closer to his family. He’d planned to spend time in retirement at home with his wife Mary and 5-year-old daughter Rylee.

His bands were consistently excellent, earning superior ratings from the Georgia Music Educators Association. He has been recognized as an outstanding educator by the Georgia Teacher of the Year Association, the Georgia Retired Teacher of the Year Association, and Walmart Industries. But what made him special was what he did beyond teaching music. His impact on the lives of his students and colleagues came from his high character and the values he helped instill in others.

Music teachers often serve a key role in schools. Their bands play at all manner of extracurricular events, compete in various competitions, and provide an important outlet and means of expression and discipline for many students. It takes a terrific leader to get a room full of kids to orchestrate their notes into a beautiful harmony.

They often must do so with stingy budgets. Last spring Clarke Middle School Band Director Brian Parido resigned over cuts to the district’s support for the arts. The virus outbreak, he said in his February 17 resignation letter, “puts tremendous pressure on me to make sure shared instruments are clean and sanitized for each student, while also spending a considerable amount of time repairing broken instruments because we do not have the money to get them fixed.”

Working under such stressful conditions can drain the life out of a teacher. Parido’s frustration is shared by many teachers in this uncertain time. It’s also frayed the nerves of many students. Having teachers who care about kids beyond the curriculum is critical to making school a community where students feel emotionally safe. Robert Lawrence was among those who taught more than his academic discipline.

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Recent Clarke Central graduate Adrienne Lumpkin told the high school’s Odyssey Media Group how Dr. Lawrence took care of his students, saying, “He was a father figure to anyone who needed it, no matter the time he was there. You could’ve been his band kid, advisee or even a stranger. There’s no replacing such a strong personality and vibrant, kindhearted human being. All of my peers would agree when I say that we’ve lost a real-life hero today.”

The testimony of another former band member I know from Clarke Central, now in a master’s degree program at Georgia Tech, is instructive. He had once had a clash with Dr. Lawrence when he was torn between studying for an AP Biology exam and reporting to the band room, which resulted in his only disciplinary action as a student. Such conflicts can often produce irreparable damage to a relationship. On learning of Lawrence’s death, however, he wrote:

“In his band class at Clarke Central High School, Dr. Lawrence blurred the lines between music and humanity. A brilliant student of his was injured once and went into a coma. For a year he left her seat empty at every concert. In this way he demonstrated to the class that music and human emotion are the same thing. That music is not simply notes on a page, a catchy tune on the radio, or an intellectual process. That music is democratic—that it is for all people regardless of race, wealth, or other insignificant distinctions. His actions toward his students showed that he believed this. I believe it, too. Thank you for helping me hear the music.”

Chris Byrne, the parent of Grace Devaux Byrne, the student for whom Lawrence left the empty seat, shared some additional memories of Lawrence’s dedication to students: “His name for her was Gracious as she grew musically in his program at Clarke Central High School here in Athens. He encouraged her with her musical compositions because of the natural gift he said he saw inside of her. His high standards and demands for excellence lifted all of the students in his programs over the years, and they became their own little family. When I spoke to a member of our school board the other day, she reflected that in their conversations over the years that he talked about his family and his band family. As the school year came to a close and Grace was unable to attend the awards ceremony, he made the special effort to bring over her awards, while also bringing a couple of her closest band friends with him. When the next school year started, after she had graduated, he invited her to his class as a volunteer assistant to talk to his current students about music theory principles. He also made sure he always stayed in contact with her even after he left Clarke Central and Athens.”

Dr Rober Lawrence, left, and Grace Devaux Byrne, right
Dr Rober Lawrence, left, and Grace Devaux Byrne, right

Lawrence’s background suggests that he exhibited in his own life the discipline that he expected of his band members. He was decorated 17 times for distinguished service while in the Army, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Troy University, master’s from Boston University, and doctorate from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. At Troy in the late 1970s, he played in the Sound of the South band and served as its first Black drum major.

Few people of that vintage still have a presence at their alma maters, but according to Troy Band Director Dr. Mark Walker, “His impact on folks at Troy, even though it was a few decades ago, a teacher of his quality and standing influences people all over. He influences them in terms of modeling correct behavior, and musicianship, and leadership and what it means to be a good person and care about other people.”

His status as a role model who did more than teach is a consistent theme of testimonials to his life. “A lot of the kids really look at him as a suitable father figure and mentor beyond a band director, so you can imagine seniors and juniors that have had him for three or four years are definitely in a little bit of a shock” over his move to Ben Hill County, said his Clarke Central band colleague and protégé Christopher Simpson, who succeeded him as band leader.

A parent of one of his students told me about the impact that Dr. Lawrence had on their family, moved to tears by the loss of a profoundly great man and educator. She was full of appreciation for all he did beyond the notes. She affirmed what Dr. Lawrence once declared about his values: “My favorite part of teaching is experiencing the musically inspired growth and maturity of my students; consequently, all should know that change is a process, not an event!”

That process, for so many young adults in Georgia, is still going on, driven by the inspiration, motivation, and guidance from Robert Lawrence. He’s gone, but his impact remains, deep in the bones of the hundreds of students who were fortunate enough to experience his love and care, and his greatness in the band room and beyond.

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