Eugene Xavier `Gene' Lawrence, 55, principal at Mergenthaler High School

January 13, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Eugene Xavier "Gene" Lawrence, the charismatic principal of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School who helped initiate a renovation of the Baltimore landmark while fighting a rare form of cancer, died Tuesday of liposarcoma at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 55.

Stricken with cancer 11 years ago, Mr. Lawrence lost his leg to the disease while inspiring faculty and students with his courage. A longtime resident of Overlea, he stepped down as principal of Mergenthaler last month.

"He was a fighter and tried to be an example of strength. He refused to give up," said his wife of 29 years, the former M. Eleanor Stegmaier.

"After he had his leg amputated, he came to the cafeteria at lunch time and went from table to table allowing students to ask him questions," said Roberta J. Johnson, acting principal at the school near Lake Montebello and a friend for 22 years. "It gave them the opportunity to talk with him and [see that] even though he had lost his leg, he could still function."

Mr. Lawrence began his Baltimore teaching career in 1967 when he joined the faculty of Carver Vocational School to teach English and later taught at Lake Clifton Senior High School.

In 1976, he was named assistant principal of Southeast Middle School, and during the early 1980s, he was assistant principal at Lake Clifton Senior High School. He was appointed principal of Francis Scott Key Elementary Middle School in 1983 and from 1988 to 1994 was principal of Hamilton Middle School.

When Mr. Lawrence took over as principal of Mergenthaler in 1994, he found a school that was suffering from lack of maintenance and immediately began renovations and improving academics.

And while he preferred to be called Gene instead of Eugene, he detested his school's nickname of Mervo and waged a campaign on behalf of the proper title: Merganthaler.

An indefatigable fund-raiser and no-nonsense principal, Mr. Lawrence vigorously lobbied for funds to improve his school. He also gave support to the College Board Program, which helped athletes improve their SAT scores and created a mentoring program with area businesses, and reinstated the National Honor Society.

"He knew education and he knew what a kid needed to be successful and then he provided it," said Kevin C. Harahan, principal of Parkville High School and a friend.

Mr. Lawrence helped raise $1.3 million to build a track on campus for cross country coach Freddie Hendricks, whose teams were forced to practice at City College, Morgan State University, Herring Run Park and Kirk Field.

The project is to be completed this summer and named Freddie Hendricks Field.

"It was a great honor, and I told him so. I was touched that he thought that much of me," said Mr. Hendricks, who has produced some of the area's most outstanding track stars and won nearly 20 city and state championships in a 30-year career. "His death is a great loss. We're all in a daze here, and it's so hard to accept."

A man who moved easily among students and faculty, Mr. Lawrence often strolled the school's halls wearing a velour Mergenthaler sweater.

Born and raised in Pikesville, he was a 1963 graduate of Loyola Blakefield. He earned his bachelor's degree from Loyola College in 1967 and a master's in education, administration and supervision from Loyola in 1975.

A deeply religious man, he was a communicant of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, Belair Road and Willow Ave. in Overlea. At the church, he had served as president of the parish council, sang with the choir, worked at fund raising and taught pre-Cana classes. He was also a fan of golf and continued to play after his leg was amputated.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at the church at 9 a.m. today .

In addition to his wife, he is survived by four daughters, Kathleen Collomb of Parkville, Bridget Lawrence of Philadelphia, Beth Lawrence and Genevieve Lawrence, both of Baltimore; and a brother, the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.

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