September 30, 2023
Florida Icon: David Lawrence Jr.

Photo: Donna Victor


Florida Icon: David Lawrence Jr.

(Chairman, Children's Movement of Florida; former publisher, Miami Herald, Coral Gables; age 76)

Art Levy | 8/28/2018

An enormous number of people read two items from a newspaper website on their iPhone and think that they’ve read the newspaper. They have not. We need participatory democracy in this republic, and it’s at real risk.

When I was 11, my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia. There were 19 volumes. I was the kind of child, as were others in the family, who would sit and read the encyclopedia because it was just fun to learn. I’m not talking about looking up things. I’m talking about turning pages one by one.

Miami’s the cutting edge of America. Miami needs to show the rest of America how we give each other the benefit of the doubt, how we celebrate what we have in common, how we learn to respect our differences. I can’t imagine being in a better laboratory of the future of America than the community where I live.

I so loved and admired my father, who was a journalist. That’s why I went into the newspaper business. And, in fact, my father and I are the only father and son in the Florida Journalism Hall of Fame. The press gallery in Tallahassee is named for my father.

Teaching has become, sadly so, frequently as much about triaging as teaching.

So, in 1996, the governor of Florida was Lawton Chiles, a person I admired deeply and thought was a very special public servant. He asked me to serve on a governor’s commission on education to look at education in the next millennium. There were six task forces that were part of this. One was on school readiness. Now, despite the fact that my wife and I have five children and now seven grandchildren, I didn’t know anything about school readiness. I didn’t know that 85% of brain growth occurs by the age of 3. I didn’t know lots of the other imperatives of getting children off to a good start in life and then school. I spent two years on this civic assignment. I was still publisher of the Miami Herald, but I ended up thinking that the work was so important that I retired from the Herald to work full time on issues of school readiness and so forth.

A newspaper’s principle purpose is not as an advertising vehicle. It’s to keep people informed in a free society.

The smartest thing you can do — and you can do it during pregnancy — is start reading with children. You ought to be reading with them from the earliest days.

It’s healthy to be a skeptic, but I think it’s unhealthy to be cynical — and I see a significant difference between the two.

I grew up on a farm. I was driving a tractor when I was 10. You were expected to work hard. I’ve always thought that I worked with people who were clearly smarter than I was, but I could work as hard as they could and perhaps harder.

When I was 18 in 1960, I invited Richard Nixon and John Kennedy to my graduation from Manatee High School. Now, you’re going to ask me did they come, and the answer is no, but I have to this day a letter from Nixon saying he was sorry he couldn’t be there, and I have an autographed copy of Profiles in Courage, which Kennedy’s office sent me. It shows if you have some chutzpah you can probably do almost anything in this world.

I’m a total product of public schools, Manatee High in Bradenton, the University of Florida. To have a public school named for me — 90% of children in America still go to public schools — that’s an honor of a lifetime for me.

Extraordinary learning goes on way before kindergarten. Get the early years right and chances are you’ll have all the years right.

I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t belong to country clubs. Going with my wife to a movie on a Sunday afternoon is a really good afternoon.

As to charter schools, I have no problem with people having a choice. I think choice is good. I think competition is good. But if you’re going to spend the people’s money — tax money — on education, then make sure that the programs are high quality.

The journalism lesson I learned from my father, above all, was to ask questions, and then ask some more, and then ask some more, and then ask some more. And, whatever you do, be fair to other people. You’re not in the business for some kind of quick hit. You’re in it to come as close as you can to the truth, without arrogantly figuring that you found the truth.

To me, a fundamental in a society of decency is that every child has access to health insurance. We have hundreds of thousands of children, literally, who are as perfectly legal as I am who don’t have health insurance.

We live in a state where 40% of children at the end of fourth grade can’t read at minimally proficient levels. That ought to be a scandal.

A child who is healthy, a child who is not hungry, that child has a much better chance to learn.

I’m more in love with my wife now than when we married almost 55 years ago.

To be 76, and to be a lifelong optimist and idealist is an extraordinary blessing. I’m as optimistic and idealistic now as I was when I was 16.

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