Harry Lawrence dies at 97; ‘Mr. Laguna’ did much for the community

Harry Lawrence, the globe-trotting former owner of an Asian art and antiques import shop in Laguna Beach whose contributions to civic improvements over the decades earned him the nickname Mr. Laguna, has died. He was 97.

Lawrence died Sunday of kidney failure in Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, said his wife, Zahide.

A resident of Laguna since 1947 — after he and his late first wife, Maxine, bought Warren Imports on South Coast Highway — Lawrence spent the ensuing decades as a major civic force in the picturesque seaside community.

“Harry single-handedly did more for the community than any other individual that I’m aware of,” said Rose Hancock, a former executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“We used to have bars and a bowling alley on Main Beach and Harry led the way for the Main Beach project, and we now have our beautiful ‘window to the sea,’” said Hancock, referring to the long campaign that led to city acquisition of the beach property that was dedicated as Main Beach Park in 1974.

Since 2008, Laguna has celebrated Harry Lawrence Day on Oct. 1, Lawrence’s birthday, with a celebration on Main Beach. “And we’ll continue to do that,” said Hancock.

Lawrence’s many other civic activities include founding the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Beautification Council in 1952 and helping lead the efforts to build South Coast Hospital (now Mission Hospital Laguna Beach).

He served on a multitude of committees, boards and task forces over the years, including the boards of directors for the Laguna Art Museum, the Festival of Arts and the Laguna Playhouse.

“I stand for clean, quaint culture — everything is guided by that short statement, and look what’s happened,” Lawrence told the Orange County Register in 2008 when asked what motivated his civic service.

“That’s just me,” he said. “Things needed to be done, and I do my best to help.”

Lawrence was born in San Bernardino on Oct. 1, 1914, and grew up in Long Beach. He joined the Merchant Marine as a seaman in 1934 and traveled to Japan, China and the Philippines, where he developed an interest in Asian art.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in international trade from Woodbury College in Los Angeles in 1937, he founded the Junior International Trade Assn. in Los Angeles. He worked at a steamship company and as an import-export company trader before landing a job in marine insurance with Fireman’s Fund.

He returned to his job with Fireman’s Fund after serving as an officer in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II.

His life changed when he and his wife were on vacation in Laguna. They stopped by Warren Imports to buy a wedding present and learned that his favorite shop was for sale.

Lawrence, who traveled to more than 155 countries and visited China 55 times for both business and pleasure, closed Warren Imports in 2006 and sold the building.

His first wife died in 1993.

Besides Zahide, his wife of 15 years, Lawrence is survived by his daughter, Susan; his stepsons, Alan and Anil Ben Adam; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Laguna Presbyterian Church, 415 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach.

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