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Bob Lawson, W.M. Jordan co-founder, leaves lasting mark on Peninsula

Bob Lawson, W.M. Jordan co-founder, leaves lasting mark on Peninsula
Bob Lawson, the co-founder of W.M. Jordan Co., died April 11 at age 91. (Courtesy of W.M. Jordan Co. / HANDOUT)

Robert "Bobby" Lawson, the co-founder of Newport News-based W.M. Jordan Co. who was known for building multiple Peninsula landmarks, died April 11 at age 91.

His sons John Lawson, who is president and CEO of W.M. Jordan, and Bland Lawson, who is a retired surgeon, both said their father always would shake your hand and ask, "How can I help you? Is there anything I can do for you?"

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Friends and family described Bobby Lawson as dedicated to the area and helping people, but often doing so anonymously or behind-the-scenes and without wanting credit.

"He didn't need praise. He just needed to know in his heart he was doing the right thing," Bland Lawson said.

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Lawson, who joined the late William M. Jordan in starting the general contracting company in 1958, saw more than $15 billion in construction projects completed under his leadership, John Lawson said. Some of his proudest projects included Christopher Newport University buildings, Newport News City Hall, the Hampton Roads Convention Center, the Virginia Living Museum, the Virginia Air & Space Center, An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News and Nauticus in Norfolk.

Late W.M. Jordan co-founder Bob Lawson and son John Lawson, current CEO.
Late W.M. Jordan co-founder Bob Lawson and son John Lawson, current CEO. (Courtesy of W.M. Jordan Co. / HANDOUT)

Bob Lawson served as board chairman for W.M. Jordan until February after retiring from day-to-day operations in 2013, John Lawson said. He helped grow the company from building smaller projects to earning $500 million in revenue last year, Lawson said.

"Mr. Lawson was a leader in this community and was instrumental in helping build what is now Riverside Regional Medical Center," said Riverside Health System President and CEO Bill Downey. "He was always wanting to see what was going on and was consistently on the job site. He was a great builder and a true gentleman."

Harry Wason knew Bob Lawson through the Warwick Rotary Club and said when he pitched the idea that would become the Virginia Living Museum, Bob Lawson was one of the first people to endorse it and helped others join in and commit, too, said Wason, the museum's founder.

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"His enthusiasm, his character — he was what a real Virginian was in the old days," Wason said. "Just a marvelous person, a lot of personality — one you could trust 100 percent."

Bobby Lawson loved pouring concrete and often would show up at the job site when it was time for the concrete pour,said John Lawson and W.M. Jordan project superintendent Kevin Owsley.

"He always believed you've got to have a strong foundation," John Lawson said.

Late W.M. Jordan co-founder Bob Lawson could always be found at the job site during a concrete pour.
Late W.M. Jordan co-founder Bob Lawson could always be found at the job site during a concrete pour. (Courtesy of W.M. Jordan Co. / HANDOUT)

John Lawson said his father also made sure to have a good foundation with his family and believed in staying grounded personally to be successful and fulfill his dreams. He raised three children, including daughter Elizabeth Lawson Taylor.

David Peebles, the former head of Ferguson Enterprises, was a lifelong friend and said Bobby Lawson wasn't an "office type of person" and was an excellent leader who walked the walk. Peebles said Lawson didn't have a big ego and worked quietly behind the scenes.

"Bobby's example was always what I looked at," Peebles said. "He never bragged about anything but there wasn't much that Bobby did that he didn't demand excellence."

Owsley remembered when he began working for W.M. Jordan as a teenager, Bob Lawson — who was 6 feet, 3 inches tall and athletic — seemed larger than life and was already a legend, he said. Workers respected him because they knew Mr. Lawson would be there for them, said Owsley, 58.

For instance, he encouraged Owsley to get into the apprenticeship program and eventually into taking on more responsibility. When Owsley was 20 years old, he said Mr. Lawson made sure he had everything he needed to qualify for his first home mortgage loan. His door, like John Lawson's door today, was always open.

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And whenever crews needed help, Bob Lawson jumped right in, even in his street clothes, Owsley said.

"He led by example. He was not scared of work — no question. Everybody had a lot of respect for him," Owsley said.

Family and friends said they'll miss him, but that Bob Lawson made sure to get the most out of his life. John Lawson said his dad taught him to never cut corners, how to humble and to do what you say you're going to do.

"I miss him every day. You couldn't replace him," John Lawson said.

Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com or follow @TidewaterBiz.

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