Joan Lawson, who overcame racism and poverty to pursue a career in public health and, after retirement, become a beloved volunteer at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, died on Dec. 4 at the age of 84. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism, according to son Dennis Watson.
Despite doing well in nursing school, Lawson received low grades as the result of a de facto policy against students of color. She nonetheless persevered, eventually going on to earn a graduate degree and forge a career in public health that lasted over four decades. When she was selected to be featured in “Sharing the Wisdom of Time,” a 2018 book about elder wisdom by Pope Francis, she was surprised, according to her interviewer Bridget Gamble, because she didn’t think her story was particularly noteworthy.
Lawson was born near Atlanta, on Aug. 12, 1936. She moved with her family to Chicago at the age of three. Her parents instilled in her a love of reading; she especially enjoyed Black history and mysteries. At a young age, she aspired to become a nurse because, she said, of her strong desire to care for other people.
After high school, she attended Cook County School of Nursing, where she was one of a few Black students. There, despite her diligence, she received a C in one of her first classes, anatomy and physiology.
“I don’t get Cs. So in all my naiveté I went down with all my papers to talk to (the instructor) and try to correct this,” she told Gamble in their interview. “I was a freshman, I hadn’t been there three months. She looked me in the eye and said ‘My dear, because of your race, you will never get the grades that you deserve.’ I’d never been talked to like that before. I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
Despite the urge to quit after that incident, a relative convinced Lawson to remain in the program, telling her that quitting would mean giving into the systemic racism designed to prevent people like her from succeeding. She completed the degree.
Over a decade later in the 1970s, while working part-time and raising a child, she finished a master's degree from DePaul University, where she made the dean's list.
Lawson worked for the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), going to the homes of the poor to do everything from treating wounds to helping the elderly.
“These were immigrant families, they had no central heating. But they had to put somebody down. So I was it,” she recalled in her interview with Gamble.
“What I found is even though we are different ethnic groups, different practices, and different exposures we are very similar. I found that many times I was the first Black person they had ever met and they were the first whatever I had met and we found out we had many similarities.”
After the VNA, she worked for the United States Department of Health & Human Services, leading teams that traveled to different hospitals in the Midwest and conducted evaluations for Medicare and Medicaid.
After retirement, Lawson couldn't sit still. She was devoted to Pilates, attending classes two to three times a week. She extended her passion for reading to helping others reach literacy, from teaching adults to working in local elementary schools with third grade students.
But Lawson was happiest volunteering at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, the pediatric facility in Jackson Park, where she was known affectionately as “Graham Cracker Granny,” after her favorite treat to give patients. According to Watson, she even requested children’s books instead of birthday presents so she could gift them to the hospital. When COVID-19 hit and the volunteer program went on pause, it took a lot of the wind out of her sails, said Watson.
Joan’s first marriage ended in divorce and produced Watson, born in 1957. She married her second husband, Chicago police officer Lartheran Lawson, in the 1960s. They lived on the 6400 block of Eberhart Avenue in West Woodlawn. When Lawson had days off, the family would walk to the beach.
According to her son, Lawson was an “early feminist.” She was invested in women’s rights, and not allowing other people to dictate what she could and could not do with her body. She was also an advocate for civil rights and believed in the sanctity of voting, because a lot of people died fighting for the right to vote. She managed to vote once more in this past presidential election and witnessed, in her lifetime, the first elected Black president and Black vice president.
Lawson placed immense value on education and contributed her entire paycheck to send Watson to an elite boarding school on the East Coast. In addition to her own graduate degree, she was proudest of Watson’s college and graduate degrees.
“Without education, I wouldn’t know what path I’d be on now. Education helps me choose and make choices that will be helpful to me and mine. I was a single parent for a while there,” she told Gamble. “People believed in me. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I’d be today. Everybody needs that and everybody needs somebody to talk to.”
Lawson is survived by Watson, her son. Those who wish to make a donation in Joan Lawson’s name may make them to La Rabida Children’s Hospital: larabida.org/donate.