Story By Hannah Lester / Photos By Robert Noles, Contributed By Maggie Lawrence, Wayne Wommack and Billy Jackson
There are those who didn’ t have the opportunity to serve in the United States Military, those who may have wanted to, who found other ways to support their country and veterans.
Johnny Lawrence, who passed away from COVID-19 in August, left a legacy behind. Johnny was a former Auburn Fire Fighter, Battalion Chief and Lee County Commissioner, but he had a passion — a passion for serving veterans in Lee County .
“In 1984, Johnny was in school in Auburn, he was in ROTC, he was a paramedic at Auburn at the time and he had a catastrophic accident,” Johnny’s wife, Maggie, said.
The accident, which broke Johnny’s knee, left him unable to join the military, as he once hoped and planned.
“He had plans to go into the military himself,” Maggie said. “He had seen friends go off to the Vietnam War at the fire department, he had a number of colleagues who were Vietnam veterans and Korean War veterans. He saw how the Vietnam veterans were received and treated. And he had a lot of close friends who were veterans.”
Although perhaps feeling left behind, Johnny began supporting these friends, neighbors and even strangers who were veterans, in any way he could.
Johnny served his community as a firefighter for 29 years.
“I was honored to serve with Johnny Lawrence as a firefighter with the city of Auburn for almost 10 years,” said Joe Lovvorn, who is appointed to the Alabama House of Representatives. “Johnny obtained the rank of Battalion Chief, and never lost sight of the value of each person working under his command. He would spend one-on-one time with every firefighter and took steps to mentor and guide people as they dealt with career and life steps.
“Whenever we responded to stressful emergency scenes, he went out of his way to make sure you knew he was feeling the emotions with you. He would often offer comic relief at his own expense, just to return a smile to someone’s face.”
Maggie said that her husband did what he could as a fire fighter but had more authority to institute plans once he became a Lee County Commissioner.
Johnny served the county as a District 2 commissioner for 18 years.
“One of the things, once he became a commissioner, he wanted to do was see Lee County do things beyond the ceremony,” Maggie said. “The mayor’s prayer breakfast on Memorial Day , is an important honor but he wanted the county to do things to serve veterans on a daily basis.”
Lee County Probate Judge Bill English said that Johnny was passionate about educating the community on the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
“Veterans Day honors all veterans, Memorial Day honors those that lost their lives,” English said. “And to Johnny, that ultimate sacrifice concept was a pretty big deal to him.”
Some projects that Johnny had a hand in or supported as a commissioner included the creation of the Veterans Court Program, renaming the Lee County Meeting Center to the Bennie Adkins Meeting Center and naming Lee County as a Purple Heart County.
“Through the years he got into a lot of what we do, he was our representative on the Lee-Russell Council of Government’s Board of Directors,” English said. “He really had his heart in the aviation community. He served on the airport advisory board for most of his 18 years in office.”
District 4 Commissioner Robert Ham said that he always assumed Johnny was a service member himself because of the respect he carried for veterans.
“I started noticing that Johnny never said the prayer at any county commission meeting that he didn’t include something about the men and women in armed services,” Ham said. “So he was very consistent about his appreciation for the people in the military.”
Johnny was also a supporter of student veterans at Auburn University.
“He thought it was important that Auburn make it easy for veterans to come here and to use the benefits that they had earned, in terms of earn –
ing an education,” Maggie said. Paul “Puck” Esposito had been working as a
Commanding Officer of the Tuskegee Commanding ROTC Unit for only a couple of weeks before Johnny showed up at his door. Johnny told Esposito that he wanted to do what he could to help support veterans as a commissioner.
Johnny wanted to connect ROTC units with veterans so both groups could benefit, Esposito said.
The more the two worked together , the closer they became as friends.
“You know Johnny, you don’t just work with Johnny, you’re Johnny’s friend,” Esposito said. “And then you’re part of Johnny’s family. And once you’re in Johnny’s family, you’re part of it all, good, bad and indifferent. He just sucks you in and what a great, great person to have. I’m blessed to be able to call him my friend because he just got himself involved.”
Esposito took a position with the Veterans Resource Center at Auburn University in 2016, and
Johnny continued to bring his ideas to Esposito for veterans at Auburn University.
“He intertwined himself with us, but it wasn’t just what ‘I’m going to do,’ or ‘What you could do for me,’ but it was, ‘What we’re doing together,’” Esposito said.
Johnny was a part of Operation Iron Ruck. Operation Iron Ruck involves the ROTC units and student veterans of both Auburn University and the University of Alabama marching from Auburn to Tuscaloosa, or vice versa, with the game ball before the Iron Bowl.
Backwater BBQ will provide this year ’s Thanksgiving meal to the student veterans and ROTC cadets who make the march.
Wayne Wommack, owner of Backwater BBQ, said that this year, his business will call the 2020 meal the ‘Johnny Lawrence Memorial.’
In addition to feeding the student veterans and their families, Backwater BBQ will be feeding veterans, law enforcement, first responders and firefighters at home, too.
Wommack said they hope to feed 60 families this year through donations that the community has provided.
This does not include the student veterans and ROTC cadets that they will feed on Operation Iron Ruck.
Wommack did not attend the meal for Operation Iron Ruck last year, but was supposed to attend with Johnny this year.
“That conversation was the last eye-to-eye conversation I had with my friend,” he said. “So one of the points I’m trying to drive home this year is: don’t miss an opportunity to see your friends, see your family, tell them you love them.”
Nationally, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Twenty-three commit suicide each day in Alabama, Wommack said.
“Every event that we do, we try to honor a veteran, a first responder, a fireman, whoever, that has crossed a wire,” he said. “And just to make them, their family feel good about what their family member has done.”
Veterans who come to Backwater BBQ for a meal will get a complete set up. They will have some dried goods, canned goods and food made in-house.
The meals will even have allergy options for those who are allergic to peanuts, for example, since the food is cooked in peanut oil, Wommack said.
The student veterans and ROTC cadets will have a full meal on the march, too.
“[In past years] Johnny pulls up and he unloads a smoked turkey, a fried turkey, a smoked ham, everything is sliced,” Wommack said. “There will be baked beans, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato cassaroles. I mean, it’s a full Thanksgiving meal like you’re sitting down at grandmother’s house.”
Before his death, Johnny had even more ideas for the Auburn Student Veterans Association. He dreamed of creating a Veterans Center of Excellence, Maggie said. This would be a site for a VA satellite clinic, perhaps, or give Auburn students a place to learn, practice and study in engineering or medicine.
“His appreciation for those that serve carried over to his overwhelming appreciation for our military,” Lovvorn said. “Johnny was a true friend to service members and veterans. It was important to Johnny that Lee County was welcoming to all veterans, and he was always sharing ideas he had to be even more inviting for service members.”
He not only supported veterans at Auburn University but was a proponent of honoring veterans at a high school level.
“He also thought it was important for young people to understand the history and to understand why people serve, the pain that people go through when they serve and kind of beyond the textbook,” Maggie said.
Johnny met Blake Busbin when Busbin taught Johnny’s daughter, Julia, at Auburn High School. But Johnny continued supporting the high school long after his daughter was no longer in Busbin’ s class.
Johnny helped to create programs to honor veterans, educate high school students and create the Auburn High School Veterans Project, which Busbin leads.
“Johnny was just such a people person that whenever we would have a call for veterans to participate, he’d send an email: ‘Hey have you talked to this person before, have you met this person before,’” Busbin, who is a social science educator at Auburn High School, said. “And just his personal connection to knowing the life story of so many veterans in our community , he was one who would always have someone he recommended we speak to.”
Johnny invited The Dixie Division Military Vehicle Club to participate in an event at Auburn High School, where students and veterans alike could take a look at the different military vehicles. Johnny was known around town for his military jeep.
“Johnny loved military history and finding ways to honor our veterans,” Lovvorn said. “Johnny was a great example of someone that appreciated the freedoms we enjoy, and worked to repay his civic rent through community service. He would not only attend events, he would be a key organizer of any parade, fly-in or ceremony for our veterans.”
The late commissioner often rode in these parades too, in his jeep, with a veteran at his side. Often this was Lee County Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins, who passed away in April 2020.
“That’s one thing that just sticks in my mind, too, is Johnny driving around, especially Bennie,” Busbin said. “Seeing the smile on Johnny’s face, being able to chauffeur around Bennie in his jeep is just an image that will aways stand out in my mind when I think of the both of them.”
Johnny’s legacy lives on behind him through Maggie, his daughter Julia and the countless veterans he served in the community .
“Those of us that counted Johnny as a friend, know the mold was broken after he was made,” Lovvorn said. “He would drop whatever he was doing to help any of us. As a firefighter, commissioner, photographer, family man, collector or by sharing a patriotic smile when driving the old army jeep down the road, Johnny Lawrence left Lee County better than he found it.