The newspaper world in Washington was better off when Richard A. Lawrence decided not to pursue a career in electrical engineering. The senior trade and international finance reporter for The Journal of Commerce for more than 30 years, Lawrence died on Nov. 29 after a prolonged illness. He was 82.
After starting at The Journal of Commerce Washington Bureau in 1961, Lawrence earned a reputation for the accuracy of his reporting and won the respect of colleagues and competitors.
Tom Connors, Washington bureau chief from 1981 to 1994, said Lawrence could beat the other major papers in Washington by the strength of his in-depth knowledge of international trade.
“A lot of other people covered trade, but they covered it as part of a general economic beat. Dick was a specialist,” Connors said. He said Lawrence frequently beat other reporters to a story. “They were exclusive in the sense that he knew the stories were there and his competitors did not.”
Connors found The New York Times and Wall Street Journal grudgingly acknowledged Lawrence had beat them by adding news that Lawrence gathered in late editions of their own papers.
“Lawrence was spectacular. Our international was better than anything,” said Stanford Erickson, a former editor in chief at The Journal of Commerce. He said that as an editor he always wanted to beat the competition, but Lawrence always thought that being accurate and informative was more important.
“One time The New York Times beat us on a story. I called Lawrence and said, ‘I don’t like being beat.’ He said, ‘It’s not a story. The New York Times has a relationship with the White House. They’re putting up a trial balloon. You’ll see on Friday they’ll say it’s not a story,’” Erickson said. “I looked. On Friday, The New York Times comes up and says it’s no story. Dick Lawrence said, ‘I don’t do that.’ I never questioned him again.”
Richard Anthony Lawrence was born Oct. 30, 1928, in Queens, N.Y. In 1946, he enrolled in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and graduated in 1949 with a degree in electrical engineering. According to his widow, Vera Oliveira Lawrence, he never pursued a career in the field.
Lawrence served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, serving at posts in Washington, D.C., Michigan and Los Alamos, N.M., Mrs. Lawrence said. After discharge, he took a job on an early-morning show at a radio station in Charleston, S.C.
“He said he got fired because he couldn’t wake up early enough,” Mrs. Lawrence said.
She said Lawrence always liked to travel, and the love of travel inspired his interest in international trade. Over the next five years, he toured Europe by bicycle, and also reported from London, Paris, Milan and Bonn for other newspapers. He then began corresponding for The Journal of Commerce, which led to his job in the Washington Bureau.
Along the way, Lawrence learned German, French and Italian. He taught himself Portuguese in 1963 after he met Vera Oliveira, a press aide at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington. They were married three years later. They toured Western Europe, most of South America, Poland and Yugoslavia on vacation. She also accompanied him on reporting trips to Japan and Hong Kong.
For all the mastery of his craft, Lawrence never quite came to terms with the tools of late-20th century journalism. “He started out with your basic standard typewriter. That was it,” Connors said. “So far as Dick was concerned, mechanization had reached its pinnacle. And there was no need to go further.”
He also hoarded paper documents. In his last days in the office, he said he could always glean more government trade data from paper than he could from government databases.
“You always knew where Dick Lawrence was because you’d see where the desk was that had the most stuff piled on it,” Erickson said. While there was no apparent filing system, whenever a colleague asked him about a report or speech, he could reach to the exact point in the stack and pull it out.
“He was methodical. He took his time. He was always polite. After a while you’d have to be polite to him. I was a little more excitable, but he was always polite, always nice, and looked at you with ... tolerance,” Erickson said. “He had the highest opinion of himself and his talents and worked at a level of excellence that we didn’t deserve.
“A very honorable person,” Erickson said. “And he never sold out. Anybody on international trade can sell out — there are all these diplomats around — it’s easy to sell out.”
“Dick Lawrence was one of the master reporters in Washington,” said John Boyd, associate editor of The Journal of Commerce. “He was also a mentor. He would gently guide a younger reporter or raise thoughtful questions to spur new coverage ideas. Winning his respect as a colleague was a prize. All of that gets to Dick as a professional, but more important to me, I was honored by his friendship.”