Phil Lawton ’54W: Life runs its course after Bunion Derby
By Sean Valentine, Director of Stewardship & Donor Relations
Philip “Phil” C. Lawton ’54W has a theory: “Most things that happen in our lives are pretty mundane. We tend to go with the flow and follow the path of least resistance. Often circumstance and serendipity are the ‘game changers’ and the first big ones usually occur when we’re teenagers.”
Mr. Lawton would know, as just such a series of serendipitous events occurred to him. Having graduated from Athol High School at 17 and not yet ready for college, he was attending Wilbraham Academy for a postgraduate year.
“Wilbraham was right for me, in so many ways,” Mr. Lawton said. “I got the needed academics for college admission, I was active in theatrical productions and glee club, and I was good enough to make the JV football team.”
As a member of the football team, Mr. Lawton had to run the Bunion Derby — the Academy’s annual 1.8-mile road race that began as a challenge between the football and soccer teams. His previous high school did not have a track or cross country team, leaving Mr. Lawton with little experience of running for running’s sake.
“I remember the day before the race, running the entire course — for ‘practice,’ I suppose — and being out of breath, bent over, recovering at the finish line,’’ Mr. Lawton said. “Mr. (Philip H.) Shaw was there, too. I knew him, of course; he was my chemistry teacher and (he) coached soccer and track. He asked me what I was doing, shaking his head at the foolishness of an all-out effort the day before the race.”
Despite his lack of formal preparation, Mr. Lawton not only completed the Bunion Derby the next day but finished second behind (star of the track team) Ronald Marcy ’54W. Mr. Lawton was the only footballer in the top five.
“The finish was agony, but I made it,” Mr. Lawton said.
What happened next was perhaps even more improbable. Coach Shaw, impressed by his feat, approached Mr. Lawton and asked him to consider going out for the winter track team. But Mr. Lawton had his heart set on playing varsity basketball.
“He (Coach Shaw) suggested that if I didn’t make varsity, would I consider varsity track instead of JV basketball?’’ Mr. Lawton said. “I don’t remember what I said in response but that’s how it worked out.”
Mr. Lawton did not make the varsity basketball team that December, so instead he decided to participate in an open time trial for the Academy’s mile relay team, which was headed to the Boston Athletic Association Relays at the Boston Garden that January.
He ran a 440 (yards) on the banked, outdoor board track (eight laps for a mile) adjacent to Smith Hall “. . . in chinos and wearing street shoes with rubber soles. In those days you bought your own equipment, and I didn’t yet have proper running shoes.”
Just as in the Bunion Derby, Mr. Lawton managed to outdo himself and earn a place on the relay squad. “I can still remember how nauseous I felt afterward, even after walking back to the dorm,” Mr. Lawton said.
The next month, now with proper shoes, he raced with teammates David Stewart ’54W, Peter Olsen ’54W and Marcy (Donald Tull ’55W was also there as an alternate) in front of thousands of cheering spectators in the Garden. The fact that the team was eliminated in the afternoon prelims and didn’t make the final didn’t bother Mr. Lawton.
“I had found something I was actually good at! I was hooked,” Mr. Lawton said.
Mr. Lawton matriculated to the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 1954 and credits Coach Shaw with helping him gain entry. Mr. Lawton walked on to the freshman cross country team, made it and later ran freshman indoor and outdoor track. He even had the chance to compete against some of his former teammates in an indoor meet between UMass freshmen Frosh, Wilbraham, Williston Northampton and Worcester academies. He eventually earned six varsity letters for indoor and outdoor track.
After his sophomore year, Mr. Lawton changed his major to physical education as he wished to have a career in teaching and coaching, but other events intervened. A member of ROTC at UMass, Mr. Lawton was offered a commission in the Air Force. He accepted, he earned his Bachelor of Science, graduated as a second lieutenant and was assigned training as a navigator.
Thus began a 23-year career in the Air Force that included 125 combat missions over Vietnam, postings to England, Texas, Alabama (where he earned a master’s in education from Troy State University), and finally Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Along the way, Mr. Lawton never stopped running.
“It’s a great way to keep in shape,’’ Mr. Lawton said. “I ran five marathons, including a 2:56.22 at Boston in 1978 at age 42.”
Retiring in 1981 as a Lt. Colonel, Mr. Lawton knew exactly what he wanted to do next. Putting his degrees and running experience to work, he became a high school English teacher with Nevada’s Clark County School District, where his wife, Mary, was an elementary English and ESL teacher. During the next 19 years, Mr. Lawton coached soccer, cross county and track and field. Among his many accomplishments:
• His teams won numerous state titles
• Three Coach of the Year honors
• Helped found the Southern Nevada Cross Country and Track and Field Coaches Association
• Inducted into the Southern Nevada Track and Field Hall of Fame, 2001
• Elected to the Southern Nevada Officials Association Hall of Fame, 2016
According to Mr. Lawton, his most satisfying creation is the Legends of Cross Country 5K
that he inaugurated in 1997, along with the Southern Nevada Cross Country Hall of Fame. The annual event honors the best runners, both past and present, in southern Nevada while also raising money for the Las Vegas Track Club’s scholarship fund.
Mr. Lawton retired from teaching and coaching in 2004 but has remained a part of the community he did much to create.
“I stayed active with track and cross country as a coach, official and as a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal,” said Mr. Lawton, who also wrote for national publications The Harrier and the Cross Country Journal.
In April 2019, Mr. Lawton was inducted into the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) Hall of Fame, an honor he said “kind of capped my love affair with running.”
To think, it all started with a little 1.8-mile road race nearly 66 years before.