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OPINION: Teacher John Lawton has inspired a new generation

Published on

Ron RealeSmith

I walked into a local coffee shop the other day and saw my old Grade 7-8 history teacher, John Lawton.

John Lawton
John Lawton

I’ve kept in touch with John over the years and we engaged in our usual banter about which former students are married or having children.

He congratulated me on my involvement with the Sarnia Historical Society, and suggested I contact two of his former students, Glen C. Phillips and John Rochon.

I was impressed Mr. Lawton had taught them. Glen C. Phillips is a well-known author who has covered much of Sarnia’s history in his books, and John Rochon and his vast collection of city-related photos and records is synonymous with Sarnia history.
I decided to reach out and ask how Mr. Lawton had impacted them.

Glen Phillips (Hanna Memorial, 1979-81)

John instilled in me a love for history as a human story – one of emotion, belief, ambition, majesty and even sorrow – and not just names and dates. I vividly remember him asking us to put ourselves in Tecumseh’s shoes and then having us explain why the First Nations’ leader made the choices he did. John Lawton’s nurturing of my historical imagination in this manner resonated with me because it connected me emotionally and intellectually with the past. This is important since history is about understanding people. I’ve carried that insight ever since.

John Rochon (Hanna Memorial, 1975-77)

One day while playing on a vacant lot off Blanche Lane, I found an old Canadian penny from 1915.  I was fascinated by the look of it and how it was larger than a quarter. I mentioned it to Mr. Lawton and he showed me a coin collector’s catalogue, showing all the coinage of Canada through the years and their current values.  The catalogue was about ten years out of date, and he gave it to me.

This sparked in me many interests, which led me going to the library and searching through the old newspapers for information, which eventually led to me being hired at the library in 1986. After all these years, I still have that penny and I still have the catalogue.

Ron RealeSmith (Queen Elizabeth II, 1997-99)

Ron RealeSmith
Ron RealeSmith

Mr. Lawton was not a conventional teacher and I think that is why he had so many students request him specifically. He taught in such a way that drew you in. You couldn’t help but learn.  Some days we would go outside and sit under a tree, he would play music when students worked on assignments (Don McLean – American Pie) and he incorporated games into learning.

Whenever there was a historical event of significance, he would take the paper that covered the event, place it in a plastic bag and throw it into the storage closet located in the classroom.  I am certain they are still there today.

Q.E.II has a time capsule and Mr. Lawton was responsible for making that happen.  We planted it on Earth Day.

The entire interview can be found at

Ron RealeSmith is president of the Sarnia Historical Society




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