ADMIRAL WILLIAM PORTER LAWRENCE

It is difficult to say who the most famous West End High School graduate is out of the over 4,000 men and women who received diplomas between 1938 and 1968, but Billy Lawrence would almost certainly

rank among the leaders. Lawrence, the son of former Vanderbilt football player, Robert “Fatty” Lawrence, and Tennessee Brewer Lawrence, was the third of the Lawrence brothers to attend West. Older brother Bobby played football

and basketball for three years before graduating in 1943. After military service, he played football at Vanderbilt. The middle brother, Eddie, played football and basketball in 1944 and 1945, but rheumatic fever ended his athletic career after high school. Billy not only played football and basketball like his older brothers for three years, he added baseball and tennis in his last two years before graduating in 1947. In his spare time, he also served as student body president his senior year.

His athletic career continued at the Naval Academy where again he played football, basketball, and baseball. However, he abandoned his athletic career his senior year to concentrate on academic and other activities. Not surprisingly, the “other activities” included his duties as class president and brigade commander. After graduating in 1951 he went on active duty beginning his lengthy career in Naval Aviation. He was the first Navy pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound and was almost selected as one of the original astronauts. Unfortunately, a slight heart murmur disqualified him as an astronaut, but not as a pilot. While serving in combat in the Viet Nam War, his plane was shot down in 1967. He was a prisoner of war until 1973. While a prisoner he wrote the poem “Oh, Tennessee, My Tennessee” which was named the state poem in 1973. One of his fellow prisoners was John McCain who later became a Senator and candidate for President. Lawrence did not pursue a political career after his release and served as a Navy officer until his retirement in 1986 with the rank of Vice Admiral.

One of his assignments after he returned to the United States was Superintendent of the Naval Academy. He assumed the position in 1978, twenty-seven years after he graduated. One of the changes in the interim was the admission of women, and one of them was his daughter Wendy. After graduation, she also became a pilot and an astronaut, so a member of the Lawrence family did become part of the space program after all.

Admiral Lawrence died on December 2, 2005. The story of his life, Tennessee Patriot, was published in 2006. Lawrence was a co-author of the biography. The William P. Lawrence, a guided-missile destroyer was commissioned on April 17, 2010. There is an exhibit about Admiral Lawrence’s career in the Alumni Room at West End Middle School.

ADMIRAL WILLIAM PORTER LAWRENCE

It is difficult to say who the most famous West End High School graduate is out of the over 4,000 men and women who received diplomas between 1938 and 1968, but Billy Lawrence would almost certainly rank among the leaders. Lawrence, the son of former Vanderbilt football player, Robert “Fatty” Lawrence, and Tennessee Brewer Lawrence, was the third of the Lawrence brothers to attend West. Older brother Bobby played football and basketball for three years before graduating in 1943. After military service, he played football at Vanderbilt. The middle brother, Eddie, played football and basketball in 1944 and 1945, but rheumatic fever ended his athletic career after high school. Billy not only played football and basketball like his older brothers for three years, he added baseball and tennis in his last two years before graduating in 1947. In his spare time, he also served as student body president his senior year.

His athletic career continued at the Naval Academy where again he played football, basketball, and baseball. However, he abandoned his athletic career his senior year to concentrate on academic and other activities. Not surprisingly, the “other activities” included his duties as class president and brigade commander. After graduating in 1951 he went on active duty beginning his lengthy career in Naval Aviation. He was the first Navy pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound and was almost selected as one of the original astronauts. Unfortunately, a slight heart murmur disqualified him as an astronaut, but not as a pilot. While serving in combat in the Viet Nam War, his plane was shot down in 1967. He was a prisoner of war until 1973. While a prisoner he wrote the poem “Oh, Tennessee, My Tennessee” which was named the state poem in 1973. One of his fellow prisoners was John McCain who later became a Senator and candidate for President. Lawrence did not pursue a political career after his release and served as a Navy officer until his retirement in 1986 with the rank of Vice Admiral.

One of his assignments after he returned to the United States was Superintendent of the Naval Academy. He assumed the position in 1978, twenty-seven years after he graduated. One of the changes in the interim was the admission of women, and one of them was his daughter Wendy. After graduation, she also became a pilot and an astronaut, so a member of the Lawrence family did become part of the space program after all.

Admiral Lawrence died on December 2, 2005. The story of his life, Tennessee Patriot, was published in 2006. Lawrence was a co-author of the biography. The William P. Lawrence, a guided-missile destroyer was commissioned on April 17, 2010. There is an exhibit about Admiral Lawrence’s career in the Alumni Room at West End Middle School.

 

Reprinted by permission of Whit Stokes (West High Class of 54) from his book, "If These Walls Could Talk, What Would They Say?", which is available for purchase on the Home Page of our website.