'Mr. Laguna' Harry Lawrence dies at 98

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Laguna Beach lost an icon Sunday when Harry James Lawrence died, with his wife, Zahide, holding his hand. He was 98 and in ill health for several years.

"It was time," said Zahide, who Harry married in 1996.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Laguna Presbyterian Church to celebrate the life of the man dubbed "Mr. Laguna" in honor of his contributions to the city.

The Patriots Day Parade Committee named him grand marshal in 2008, referring to him in the program as one of Laguna's most distinguished residents. He had previously been named in 1981 as the Citizen of the Year.

In 2001, Harry received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chamber of Commerce and a Person of the Year Award, which was subsequently named for him and presented annually at the chamber's Spirit of Laguna awards. He was also the recipient of the chamber's Mermaid Beautification Award.

"Business in Laguna Beach stands on the broad shoulders of Harry Lawrence," said Michael Kinsman, 2012 chamber president. "His contributions to the community are legion, and we are proud that the chamber's Citizen of the Year Award bears his name.

"He will be missed."

Harry was the consummate volunteer. His fingerprints are all over some of the town's most cherished institutions.

In a one-on-one interview, released this week, with family friend and former Chamber of Commerce Director Rose Hancock, Harry was quoted as saying, "Things needed to be done, and I do my best to help. I have great joy being surrounded by good people, unselfish people with good objectives. You'd be surprised. God has always looked out for me in impossible situations. I know if I do the right thing, all will be well."

The city recognized his accomplishments in 2009, declaring Oct. 1 "Harry Lawrence Day," which was celebrated each year thereafter on Main Beach, his most enduring legacy to the city.

However, the "Window to the Sea" was neither Harry's first nor his last major achievement on behalf of Laguna since moving here with his first wife, Maxine, and their daughter, Susan, in 1947.

Shortly after arriving here, Harry became secretary and then president of the Laguna Playhouse and decided the theater needed a new venue and helped raise the funds for it, as recorded by Jack Smith in a decade-by-decade resume of Harry for the presentation of the Exchange Club's Book of Golden Deeds.

In the 1950s, Harry founded the Beatification Committee and the Holiday Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce to bring tourists to Laguna in the winter, and raised revenue by an innovation called bed taxes.

The next decade saw Harry founding the Civic League, dedicated to preserving the "Village Atmosphere," and helping reduce sign clutter, which resulted in one of California's toughest sign ordinances.

He was a founder and board member of Lyric Opera, which morphed into Opera Pacific; board member of the Festival of Arts; twice president of the Chamber of Commerce, which he helped resuscitate from its near-moribund state after World War II; he served as area district governor of Laguna's Rotary; and he was on Laguna's 1980 Committee, which forged the city's General Plan. He was very involved in fundraising for the construction of South Coast Hospital, the first one in South Orange County.

Harry served on the Laguna Art Museum board, twice as vice president. He chaired the "Confidential Committee," which worked to resolve the rampant drug-related activities in town.

In 1980, the Rotary Club gave him the Paul Perris Award, its highest honor, and he was named to the advisory board of Woodbury University, his alma mater.

Throughout the years, Harry supported local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5868.

As reported in the Coastline Pilot, a plaque celebrating his membership was presented to Harry last July by Post Commander Bill Sandlin at a ceremony honoring war heroes. Senior Vice Commander Arnie Silverman organized the tribute, which included a recap of Harry's military service.

"Harry's history of achievements is overwhelming," Silverman said. "A World War II veteran, he commanded an LSI-329 amphibious ship that made numerous beach landings of Marines in the thick of fighting in the battle-torn Solomon Islands. Often under attack by Japanese torpedo bombers, he once came close to losing his ship. He rose from Ensign to Lt. Commander and by war's end, he captained his own ship."

Harry was also a savvy businessman.

In 1947, Harry and Maxine bought Warren Imports, a small gift shop in the French Family's enclave on South Coast Highway that featured works by local artists and potters. They had gone into the shop to buy a wedding gift.

Over the next half century, Warren Imports, the name of which was never changed, gained international renown for its inventory of Asian art and furniture and the owners expertise. Harry also guided tours to Asia, while Maxine and Susie took care of business at home.

Warren Imports was later moved to larger quarters on the corner of South Coast Highway and Center Street. It closed in 2009.

Harry's annual trips to the Orient made such an impression on him that he completed and presented numerous slide shows and lectures throughout the U.S. on the art, religious and cultural background of China.

Harry was not always a store-owner or an expert on Asian culture.

He was born Oct. 1, 1914, in San Bernardino and raised in Long Beach where he graduated from Wilson High School with five athletic letters. He went on to Long Beach City College, Smith recounted in the Book of Golden Deeds.

However, Harry was a traveling man, eventually able to boast of visiting 155 countries. His travels started with the Merchant Marines, and he sailed around the world as a young man, Hancock said.

Sometimes he took menial jobs until he went back to school to get a degree in International Trade of the Far East from Woodbury College in Los Angeles. He was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2001.

After graduation, Harry founded the Junior International Trade Assn. in Los Angeles and worked at a steamship company and as a trader for an import-export company before settling on a job with Fireman's Fund, until Dec. 7, 1941.

After World War II ended, Harry went back to work for Fireman's Fund, but soon thereafter the Lawrences bought the shop from Earl and Florence Warren, where he spent the next 61 years. Maxine died in 1993, and Harry married his second wife, Zahide Adam, in 1996.

He is survived by Zahide, his daughter Susan, his step-children, Alan and Anil Adam, daughter-in-law Kim, and two-month-old granddaughter, Ella.

coastlinepilot@latimes.com

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