A legacy kept afloat: Luncheon to remember, honor a local hero

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 11:22pm

West High alumni are in for a ship-load of memories and a touch of history.

Commander Thomas Williams of the U.S. Navy will be guest speaker at the West alumni monthly luncheon, 11:15 a.m. Thursday at Hillwood Country Club.

The significance of Williams’ appearance is that he is the commander of the ship, the William Lawrence DDG 110 destroyer, which is near completion.

The giant vessel is named for Lawrence, a classmate and basketball teammate of Bob Dudley Smith of old West High (currently West Middle School). The ship is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in late 2010 when it will bear Lawrence’s name. It is to be commissioned in early 2011.

“This is one of the most special events I have ever been a part of,” said Smith, who was a standout player at West and led the Blue Jays to state titles in 1946, then 1948 (as a senior) before going on to be a standout player at Vanderbilt.

“Someone as distinguished as Commander Williams will be here in our town as our speaker,” he said. “He’ll have some words for Bill Lawrence, who became a national hero after he graduated from West and had this awesome battleship named after him.”

Lawrence, who died in 2005 at age 75, graduated from West in 1947 before going on to attend the Naval Academy. Afterwards he become a Vice Admiral of the Navy, a decorated officer and a POW in Vietnam for six years in a long and distinguished career.

He later served as superintendent of the Naval Academy before retiring in 1986.

On April 17, the ship was christened in a special ceremony in Pascagoula, Miss. Former presidential candidate Ross Perot, a close friend of Lawrence, was honorary speaker. It was an event Smith attended.

Among Williams’ remarks were: “We have many challenges ahead of us. I expect all crew in Lawrence to be leaders who dedicate themselves to operational excellence and my three priorities of combat readiness, mission focus and putting sailors first.”

Among the guests at Thursday’s luncheon will be Diane Lawrence, the widow of the Vice Admiral, as well as a daughter, Laurie.

Dr. Mildred Stahlman, daughter of former Nashville Banner publisher Jimmy Stahlman (who served in the Naval Reserve), is also expected to attend. Mildred and sister Ann christened the USS Nashville in 1937.

Of note, that was a break in tradition as normally only one person would christen a ship (formally breaking a bottle over its bow), but Stahlman insisted that both daughters be part of the ceremony, and the Navy acquiesced.

Bill Lawrence, Jr., the Vice Admiral’s son who lives in California, wasn’t able to attend, but sent this E-Mail to Smith: “I am quite impressed with Commander Williams and his crew. Not only are they top notch Navy men and women but they have gone the extra mile to connect with our family and my dad’s heritage. Thanks for reaching out to them in conjunction with this trip to Nashville. I know they are in good hands.”

Bill Bailey and J.B. Souder were riding in Lawrence’s fighter pilot aircraft shot down in 1967 after which all three became POWs in Vietnam. Smith heard from them both.

“I think the best tribute I have heard was a description of Bill as ‘the sailor’s admiral.’ It was in respect to his ability to treat the sailors with whom he came in contact with dignity and respect,” Bailey said.

“Simply put, no finer man ever wore the uniform of a United States naval officer than Bill Lawrence,” Souder said.

Some facts involving the massive ship include:
• Length: 509½ feet, almost two football fields.
• Displacement: 9,496 tons, full load.
• Speed: excess of 30 knots.
• Crew: 276.

The ship’s insignia will be a circular emblem with the words USS William P. Lawrence on top and DDG on the bottom. In the middle are inscribed the words “Never Give In,’’ which was one of Lawrence’s favorite sayings which he remembered from Winston Churchill in World War II.

Smith said the luncheon would be a joint meeting with the U.S. Navy office and co-ordinated by John Ohlinger of the Naval Alumni Affairs of Middle Tennessee.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have Commander Williams here to speak. It will be a great day for West and a great day for Nashville,” Smith said.