NEWBURYPORT — The story goes that, in his later years, longtime municipal leader George Lawler Jr. would have a friend drive him through the city so that he could monitor the changes taking place.
The journey would invariably end at the water treatment plant on Spring Lane, which was of great interest to him because he had re-emerged in public life to assume the chairmanship of the Board of Water Commissioners.
“My father held many jobs with the city, but it’s appropriate that a memorial be here,” said Mary Ann Lawler, his daughter, who spoke at the dedication of a memorial plaque yesterday. “He loved being active in city business, and his final role was with the water commissioners.
“He’d be very proud that the rebuilding project has been successful, and the project will help the city for many years. He loved Newburyport so much.”
Lawler, who died in February at the age of 85, was remembered yesterday at the site of the recently renovated clearwell and purification plant.
Several years ago, the aging complex had been in jeopardy of crumbling, but reconstruction at a cost of close to $18 million has enabled it to emerge as a state-of-the-art system.
Frank Cousins, who has served in posts from city councilor to sheriff of Essex County, said, “From 1953 to 2013, George worked to make this a better city. Everyone’s quality of life here has benefited, from those who count on the water system to those who value the historic downtown that he played a big part in saving.”
“He was a very dear friend, and the presence today of his family and many colleagues who worked with him shows that so many people held him in high regard,” Cousins said.
Lawler, a tall, reserved Newburyport native who was the son of a local police officer, served as mayor from 1964 to 1967. He was a city councilor for numerous years, including 1954 to 1963 and 1988 to 1991.
After two terms as mayor in City Hall, he worked for the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority until 1971. From 1971 to 1987, he was city clerk.
Speakers yesterday remembered Lawler as a mayor who helped save the downtown from demolition.
In the early 1960s, a tentative plan called for tearing down almost the entire historic downtown and replacing it with a strip mall and parking lots. It was the standard model of urban renewal at the time, a path that many cities had followed.
Lawler was a key factor in developing an alternative to such a scenario.
The thoughtful leader, known for a sharp memory, was also a crucial figure in the creation of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp., and for the development of Yankee Homecoming.
“George Lawler gave so much of himself to the city,” said Mayor Donna Holaday, one of several speakers at the sun-filled commemorative gathering. “He gave, gave, gave, and one of his contributions, along with Byron Matthews, was stopping the demolition of the downtown.”
State Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, said, “Years ago, I spent much time with George on what might be known as ‘Newburyport Politics 101.’ George would never steer you wrong. It’s fitting that the plaque be placed on this beautiful building that will help the community for many years.”
The plaque reads, “This building is dedicated to the memory of George H. Lawler Jr., for his lifelong service to the City of Newburyport. Newburyport Water Treatment Plant, Clearwell and Pumping Station.”