, Newburyport, MA

February 15, 2013

Lawler's work for downtown, industrial park should not be forgotten

Bill Plante's
North Shore

---- — It was on an evening oh so long ago when George H. Lawler Jr., whose death came early this week, had once asked the people of Newburyport to give him a chance to be helpful as mayor.

It came on Candidates Night of a half century ago, and that after his having served some 12 years as a City Council member. The earliest testing of his abilities was when then- Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives before his term had expired and called upon Lawler to serve as liaison to the council in his absence.

That had given Lawler a leg up on his run for mayor, so his pre-election remarks were more of a report than a bold assertion on that candidates’ night.

Newburyport was on the cusp of change, and George Lawler was ready to make his stand as mayor.

He did that with exceptional diligence, persuasion and bonding, not the least of which was with Byron J. Mathews, then council president, as well as those at the Historical Society of Old Newbury who were determined to save the downtown from a federal wrecking ball.

I was pleased to read the detail of the heart of that historic struggle in Wednesday’s Daily News’ account of his passing, and it reminded me of his history-making support of the industrial park as well.

Born of an effort by the private sector but strongly supported by those in city government, it became the parallel initiative of the city’s mid-century evolution.

That resulted in an extraordinary agreement.

The public drive to purchase land for the industrial park was proving successful, and the time had come to find and fund the cost of professional director to attract industry. Foremost among candidates was Earl R. Cook, then employed in Toledo, Ohio.

Ten years earlier he had been a guest speaker at a city-wide meeting of Newburyport’s private and political leaders. Cook had been explicit in his call for a not-for-profit corporation as being essential, and that had finally been formed. When contacted, he was equally insistent as to his need to work outside the political box.

He would be employed by the city and paid by the city. He would not, however, work in City Hall. The city would pay his salary and that of a secretary, and he would come from Toledo, Ohio, only if he were not required to report to any elected officials, but only to the Newburyport Area Industrial Board.

That was a revolutionary idea, but the rebuilding of a manufacturing base was as essential to the city’s needs as was the restoration of the downtown.

Nevertheless, both Mayor Lawler and the City Council agreed. Cook brought the fund drive to its satisfactory conclusion, oversaw the purchase of land and the birth of the Lord Timothy Dexter Industrial Park — the name Cook proposed because it represented extraordinary vision and venture.

So was that of Mayor George H. Lawler Jr. in his extraordinary efforts to shape the stage for all that followed in the city of his birth.

He is the only mayor of the city’s historic rise from its depths to its flowering whose contributions are not recognized by public notice.

Surely that must be changed.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is