Lawrence encouraged students to get out of their comfort zones, seeking people and experiences to challenge them and help them grow. He urged them to become lifelong learners, noting that he still reads at least one book a week. He told them to prioritize loving and helping others, and he took questions from a panel of RE students –
"You are going to get ahead," he said. "Some of you are going to get spectacularly ahead ... You can do almost anything you want. I want you to lead a life of service, doing something bigger and beyond yourself."
Lawrence told of growing up in a Roman Catholic family with eight siblings and a farm to manage. By age 10, he worked on the farm, driving a tractor. He honed his love for reading and knowledge by devouring the family's prized volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia. After attending the University of Florida, he worked at a number of newspapers, including the Detroit Free-Press
and Miami Herald
, assuming the position of managing editor by age 27. His career brought him opportunities to interview or dine with Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, U.S. presidents and others.
He retired from the Herald in 1999 after helping the newspaper win five Pulitzer Prizes. He now chairs The Children’s Movement of Florida, whose goal is to make children the state’s top priority for investment. He has led various governmental and private sector initiatives to help children, including the Governor’s Children and Youth Cabinet, the Florida Partnership for School Readiness, The Children's Trust and the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Protection.
"I'm as optimistic and idealistic today as I was at age 16," Lawrence said. "I always thought the best I could do would be to work hard, be fair and listen to other people."
He has received 13 honorary doctorates, including one from his alma mater, the University of Florida, and has earned dozens of local, state and national awards. He served on Ransom Everglades’ Board of Trustees from 1990-2003 and with his wife Roberta had five children, including three who attended RE: Dana Lawrence ’03, John Lawrence ’98
and Amanda Wood ’94
After the assembly, he engaged with students and signed copies of his memoir, A Dedicated Life: Journalism, Justice and a Chance for Every Child.