In memoriam of a legend in educational leadership
The auditorium was loud with social gathering. A large screen showed an aged man’s face overlooking the audience, his eyes were a clear blue; he pensively surveyed the crowd with a firm hand under his chin, attempting to take in everyone present. His presence was striking, even if he stood unknown to you. Under his wistful gaze stood his beloved pristine grand piano in the middle of the stage, the seat empty, implying the absence of both a pianist and leader.
The lights dimmed, and the crowd of students, faculty, and administration awaited the ceremony commemorating the passing of their friend, mentor and colleague on Wednesday, September 17. Executive Vice President of Santa Monica College, Randal Lawson, affectionately referred to as “Randy”, died on August 19th, at the age of 66. His unexpected death impacted the entire community of SMC, as a mentor and advisor to many.
The atmosphere was not mournful, but in fact sprang with a gentle humor and air of nostalgia. Many of the speakers at the memorial expressed their profound respect, their voices occasionally wavering as they were overcome with the gravity of their thoughtful words.
SMC’s superintendent and President, Dr. Chui L. Tsang, opened the memorial ceremony by describing Randy as an “impassionate leader” and a “down to earth accessible educator.” In their nine year friendship and working relationship, Dr. Tsang recalled how Lawson not only had high standards for the students of SMC, but for himself as well.
He was continuously described as a man passionate about his career, especially at SMC. He involved himself through various positions beginning with the Chair of the Music Department and received many awards throughout his career such as the Carter Doran Leadership Award and the ACCCA Award for Administrative Excellence. Though he received plenty of praise and a plethora of awards, Lawson insisted on humility and dedicated more of his time to building up others.
“Nobody cared as deeply and as quietly as much as Randy,” confirmed Ian Walton, former President of the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges.
Various speeches were given as well as a touching performance of "For Good" sung by Janelle DeStefano, played by Gary Gray on Lawson's piano, both professors in SMC’s music department. A slideshow displayed various pictures of Lawson's youth up to his high school prom and his career at SMC since 1979. Photos of young Lawson provided a roadmap to the charming and evoking character whose smile only appeared to grow larger throughout the years. The audience enjoyed the slides through smiles, laughter and playful banter amongst themselves.
The trio – Dr. Richard Moore, former superintendent and President of SMC, Darroch “Rocky” Young, former Vice President of SMC and Rhoda Tuit, who retired 4 years ago as a professor of SMC’s music department – together comically told the story of Lawson's beginning at SMC.
Tuit and Randal both applied for the single position as the pianist player of SMC’s music department in 1979. Dr. Moore and Young had asked each of them to play live to help them reach the final decision of who would receive the job. After careful consideration, Tuit’s apparently attractive “red dress” (they joked) and Lawson’s “magnificent determination,” were the compelling factors that lead to both being hired.
Some speakers recalled memorable funny moments in Lawson's career, while others could not help but express weight of their broken hearts.
“It is a very difficult time for me,” said Daniel Pollack, professor at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC). “When I first came to USC it was a momentous time," recalling time he met Lawson when they were both studying for degrees in music. Pollack grieved for the loss of his close friend at his family’s gatherings.
Jeff Shimizu, recently named the interim Executive Vice President, recalled the time when he was promoted to his previous position of Vice President of Academic Affairs. Lawson had congratulated and embraced him, recalling that, “For the first time in 30 years [Lawson] let his guard down.” Shimizu recalls rushing out of the office in fear that the faculty and students present might catch him with tears running down his face.
"He shared his friendship as easily and generously as he shared his knowledge," said Georgia Lorenz, the current Vice President of Academic Affairs.
“He didn’t just answer my questions, he gave me a lesson," explained Lorenz. She recalls the many times she would come into his office to ask Lawson questions, in which she jokingly blames herself for disrupting his work. She went on to recall the countless times Lawson would act as her “safety net” throughout their years of working together. If she was not 100 percent ready for a new position, Lawson would catch her if she fell. In times of hardship, he would simply remind her that this too would pass.
Young described his own friendship with Lawson as “the odd couple”. Having graduated from UCLA, and Lawson as his potential rivalry as a graduate from USC, it was enough for him to see their strange compatibility. Lawson was a musician while he was a business faculty member; they led different perspectives and talents. They had joked in the past that Randy would have played the piano, and Young was supposed to do standup comedy and perform all over California.
Young jokingly mentioned that Lawson was always just one step behind Young as he transitioned to different positions throughout his career at SMC. “As I changed jobs, he was always selected as my replacement,” he mentions amusingly. Predictably, Lawson was selected as SMC’s Vice President after Young resigned to become president of Pierce College.
As a lover of music, a passionate individual for education who held many talents and shared his friendship, knowledge, and generosity just as easily, his death is one that will be felt deeply and indelibly.
Lawson's shoes will not be filled in this community easily, as he was the person who held it all together, however, his legacy of excellence and professionalism are a guiding light to this community. “We aren’t the gorilla glue that Randy was, but we have our Randy Bible,”said Walton.