Our Laguna: VFW fundraiser honors Harry Lawrence, veterans

Commander Bill Sandlin presents a plaque to Harry Lawrence at the VFW Post 5868 dinner.
(Photo by Jackie Heddlesten, Coastline Pilot)

All veterans, but particularly one of Laguna’s own, were honored July 21 at a fundraiser hosted by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5868 at the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club.

About 75 people attended the tribute for vets and, specifically, Harry James Lawrence — yes, there are two Harry Lawrences in town, hence the middle name. Among the guests: family, friends, admirers and members of the post, its auxiliary and of American Legion Post 222.

“Harry was in the hospital for two weeks before the event, and it took a tremendous effort on his part to attend,” said his wife, Zahide. “I was so grateful he was able to be there.”

Lawrence was honored as one of the great heroes and citizens of Laguna by post Senior Vice Cmdr. Arnie Silverman, who organized the tribute.

Silverman, who served as master of ceremonies, referred often to the text he had written for the program, which was distributed to everyone who attended.

It included a brief résumé of Lawrence’s accomplishments in the service of his country and his community:

“Harry’s history of achievements is overwhelming. 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 lieutenant-commander and by the war’s end, he captained his own ship.

“When Harry was commanding amphibious landing craft delivering Marines to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, Vern Spitaleri was doing the same thing on a beach in Normandy,” Silverman said.

Spitaleri, who was honored in 1996 as a Patriot of the Year by the Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade Committee, was seated next to Lawrence at the tribute. The parade committee also honored Lawrence as Citizen of the Year in 1981 and grand marshal in 2008.

Spitaleri was also active in community affairs — sometimes in concert with Lawrence.

Both worked on acquiring Main Beach as a park for the city, and both helped raise money for art institutions in Laguna.

But before Lawrence turned his attention to Laguna after World War II ended, on his own he established workshops in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Kyoto, Japan. The workshops turned out high-quality, rosewood furniture and provided much-needed employment in those economically distressed areas. His efforts there previewed his future public service to the town he adopted as his own — not to mention his lifelong love affair with all things Asian.

Lawrence moved with his late wife, Maxine, and their daughter, Susan, to Laguna Beach in 1947. He left a secure job at Fireman’s Fund to become owner of Warren Imports, a gift shop featuring works by local artists and potters in Art Center, now part of French 75.

Over the next half century, the store gained fame for its selection of Asian art and furniture and later moved to larger quarters. Lawrence also guided tours in Asia.

Widowed in 1993, Lawrence married Zahide Adam in 1996.

But there is a reason he is called “Mr. Laguna.”

While raising a family and building a successful business, Lawrence zealously supported the arts and environment that helped make Laguna a destination for travelers from around the world.

Besides the acquisition of Main Beach, Lawrence organized the cleanup of the Rockledge area, revitalized the chamber of commerce after the war, and founded the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Beautification Council in 1952.

He was among the community leaders who made South Coast Medical Center a reality, and he personally co-signed for the construction loan for the Laguna Playhouse on Laguna Canyon Road.

Among the awards he has received: the Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds Award, the Rotary Club’s Paul Harris Fellowship and the chamber’s Mermaid Beautification Award.

The chamber also bestowed a Lifetime Achievement award on Lawrence and the Person of the Year award, which has officially been named for him and presented annually during the chamber’s Spirit of Laguna award ceremonies.

A new award was added at the tribute to the collection: a plaque from the post created by Junior Vice Cmdr. Duncan Nickle and presented to Lawrence by VFW post Cmdr. Bill Sandlin.

Silverman also thanked those who attended the tribute, which helped raise funds for the post’s programs.

Programs include assisting veterans and their families in applying for and securing medical care, benefits and other services and by participating in local patriotic events such as the Memorial Day ceremonies at Heisler Park and the Patriots Day Parade.

“Your VFW post has been serving veterans, and their families, and the Laguna Beach community for over 65 years,” Silverman said. “We are proud to honor tonight outstanding Americans now serving their country. Please welcome these fine Americans who represent all veterans past and present who have served our great nation.”

Silverman hopes to make the tribute to veterans an annual event, held on Veterans Day in November.

“I met some terrific people — really great people — doing this,” Silverman said. “Rose Hancock [chamber executive director and one of Lawrence’s greatest fans] gave me terrific advice. Stefany Skenderian made all the arrangements and oversaw the preparations at the Woman’s Club, assisted by Gayle Waite, who even stayed to help clean up.”

The tribute was held at the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club because of the parking constraints at the Veterans Memorial Building on Legion Street, Silverman said.

“Neighborhood Congregational Church (across the street from the club on St. Ann’s Drive) let us use their parking lot,” Silverman said. “This really was a communitywide effort.”

Ed “Hot Keys” Merrilees entertained on piano, and Jonathan Skelton on saxophone.

Speakers included post Auxiliary President Jackie Heddlesten, who also helped serve dinner along with other members of the auxiliary. Post Quartermaster Kim Skelton (Jonathan’s mother and a former U.S. Marine) led the Pledge of Allegiance. American Legion Post 222 Commander Frank Daniel offered a prayer.

Dinner was prepared by Zahide Lawrence, with the help of Hulya and Narriman Ince.

On the Turkish menu: kadin budu kofte and icli kofte (meatballs), plaki (a brown bean dish), zeytinyagli yesil fasulye (green beans in olive oil, served room temperature), pilav (rice), borek (bread layered with cheese) and salata (salad).

The desserts were baklava and revani.

Post member Norman Abbod dispensed the wine, suggesting a donation of $5 a glass.

Among those who attended the tribute: Cherry Spitaleri, Jean Law, Dick Frank, U.S. Air Force veteran and artist Pat Turnier, Hedi Omans, Lawrence’s caretaker Athicka King, stepsons Alan Adam and Anil Adam with his wife, Kim, and family friend Mary Mayel.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 380-4321 or email