His family sold chickens; he drove a tractor. It’s all in this Miami leader’s memoir

Dave Lawrence Jr., president of Children’s Movement of Florida, speaking with kids at the United Way Center for Excellence for Early Education in 2010.
Dave Lawrence Jr., president of Children’s Movement of Florida, speaking with kids at the United Way Center for Excellence for Early Education in 2010. EL NUEVO HERALD

South Floridians know David Lawrence Jr. from his decade as a publisher of the Miami Herald in the 1990s and, since then, his tireless advocacy for early childhood education.

Recently, he also became an author. His memoir, “A Dedicated Life: Journalism, Justice and a Chance for Every Child,” will launch Tuesday at a Books & Books Press event at Temple Judea in Coral Gables.

The pages of “A Dedicated Life” affirm the values of the Dave Lawrence you already may know. Even if you’ve only met Lawrence casually, you’ll recognize his voice as he writes about his leadership of the Charlotte Observer (as editor from 1975-78), the Detroit Free Press (as editor in 1978, with publisher added to his portfolio in 1985) and the Miami Herald (as publisher, 1989-1999). His legendary passion for fairness, accuracy and service is reflected in remembrances of a Cuban-American boycott of the Herald that resulted in death threats to his family, a column about the distraught parents of a murdered teen seeking justice, and personally delivering newspapers after Hurricane Andrew.

Lawrence has brought that same tireless devotion to children’s advocacy. The founder and driving force behind the Children’s Movement of Florida and the Children’s Trust, Lawrence has raised millions of dollars, awareness and political support for early education, health and services locally and across the state. He played a key role in a statewide constitutional amendment calling for pre-K for all 4-year-olds.

But there’s more here than simple remembrances. Lawrence passes on “life lessons” — sometimes learned hard — that helped propel his success. Be willing to take risks — even pay cuts. Believe in yourself and really try. If you care about people, you need to tell them.

David Lawrence Jr.’s autobiography, published in 2018 by Books & Books Press.

And even if you’ve worked with Lawrence, as I have, you may find surprises. Like his affection for pool and poker. His college-days arrest in Washington, D.C. And the fact that his socialite mother (listed in New York’s Social Register) plucked chickens on a farm northwest of Syracuse while then 10-year-old Lawrence drove a John Deere tractor and sold vegetables to the neighbors.

The 1950s recession, his mother’s health and the cold spurred the family’s move to Florida. His father returned to the journalistic practice that preceded his farming days, setting the groundwork for his son, David Jr.’s, own career.

Though his life as a newsman is behind him, Lawrence’s support for insightful, fair journalism is unwavering. “A profound new challenge confronts journalism — and the American people. It is an assault, supported by at least a third of American adults, on journalism and the very nature of truth. … Minus genuinely informed and involved citizens — people who are interested in facts told in honest context — our republic is imperiled,” he writes.

We interviewed Lawrence via email about his book, his career and his endless appetite for service.

Q: You have plenty do with your time. Why did you write this book?

People have asked me for years, “When are you going to write your book?” And I always said, jokingly, “When I get old enough.” So I was old enough, and was willing to spend most weekends for a year and a half on it.

Q: What is the No. 1 thing you want readers to take away?

That you can lead an idealistic, optimistic, always-learning life all your life. There’s more joy in leading such a life, and it gives you the opportunity to do more for others.

Q: What do you think will be the biggest surprises for readers who know you or know of you?

Maybe that I am a “romantic,” as my mother said of me. That I am a sentimentalist. I love happy endings in movies, and anywhere else I can get such.

Q: You allude to several painful family scenarios, including the death of a son-in-law, but you don’t say much about them. What has helped you and your family work through such painful experiences?

Though I ask an awful lot of questions of other people, I am mostly a pretty private person. If you can live through great human pain, and grow, you will have a far greater sense of what is truly important in this world. I am also someone who would be lost without a strong belief in a Higher Being … God.

Q: Miami has a built-in audience for this book, as you are well known here. How do you engage readers in other communities to pick it up?

I am embarking on a speaking tour throughout this state, and beyond. Our family has been part of this state for more than six decades; I went to high school in Bradenton, went to college in Gainesville, worked at three Florida newspapers (St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach and Miami), have spent considerable time in Tallahassee and virtually every corner of this state. So I do know, and love, Florida. Moreover, my book at heart is about values and inspiration; we all need those.

Q: To live as intensively and — frankly — as highly scheduled as you do, something has to give. Family, health, relationships, sanity — something. What have you compromised?

Who among us knows for sure? In my own way, I’ve lived a simple life. No golf; no tennis; no country clubs; no fancy cars. Love my wife as much or more than when we met 57 years ago at the University of Florida. Love my children and their families. Have always been blessed to work on behalf of others — in journalism, in issues of early learning and “school readiness,” on all sorts of boards and community and state initiatives.

David Lawrence Jr., when he was publisher of the Miami Herald, shown in this 1997 file photo from the Miami Herald. Herald File Herald File

Q: People don’t always think of you as a business person. In fact, you have run several businesses, both those for profit and not-for-profit. What is your best advice for running a successful enterprise?

Treat people the way you want to be treated; people want to work for people who care about them, care about their work and their lives.

Q: What is your top tip for being a leader and manager within a company or organization?

See above, plus get back to everyone with alacrity and practice genuine customer service.

Q: What is your top tip when you’re enlisting support outside your organization, such as community organizing and fundraising?

People believe in people. I am a salesman of sorts; that begins in knowing what I am “selling” and believing in that.

Q: You write about being motivated by impacting lives and by exceeding expectations, particularly those of your parents. Which of these has been the greater motivator? Are there other motivations that have driven you?

I am forever motivated by parents who cared about all nine of us, loved us, scolded us when we needed scolding, praised us when we deserved, and thought each of us simply must make a difference in other lives.

Q: In your book, you quote from letters received from newspaper readers decades ago. What have you done with all the notes and memorabilia of your work life? Is it overflowing in some secret storage unit some place?

I’ve thrown out most everything else!

Q: You write about the strains that have impacted journalism and the newsrooms of most regional legacy media, including The Miami Herald. Given your experience in both the newsroom and the publisher’s office, how would you suggest legacy media companies balance the competing forces of dwindling revenues with increasing competition?

I can get news of Iraq and Afghanistan and so much else so many places — and do. What I am especially hungry for is news of what is going on in my own community. Local-local-local (and state) is at the core of what a local newspaper can do.

Q: Public discourse has become highly divided and often uncivil. How would you suggest we as a society redress that?

It starts, and must, with each of us. Set your own example. It’s catching. There’s no shortage of good people here and elsewhere.

Q: You write that you’re an optimist. What makes you optimistic about the future?

The people I meet. If you came to my book-discussion group, made up of two-dozen 20- and 30-year olds, you would literally be excited about these and so many other examples of good and caring and giving people.

Q: What worries you most about the future?

Ours is an angry, even hateful time. What makes this country truly exceptional is our moral aspirations, our moral core. Lose that, and we are no longer exceptional. It must begin at the top, but civilized discourse and genuine listening and honorable compromise must be our mutual obligation at every level of our society.

Q: You write that trust is the central issue in America today. How do you build trust when there’s so much chatter — and disinformation — clogging the brainwaves and airwaves?

It begins with inspirational leadership – in Washington, Tallahassee and in every community. “Who inspires you?” is a question each of us should ask of ourselves.

By hearing and reading and watching opinions and perspectives that might well disagree with our own opinions. By giving more people the benefit of the doubt. By understanding that America works best toward the center, when America embraces everyone.

Q: Let’s move to your efforts on behalf of children and school readiness. What is the different between the Children’s Trust and the Children’s Movement?

The Children’s Trust is a dedicated funding source for early intervention and prevention, and will invest $150 million this coming year in high-quality programs and initiatives to give children the best possible chance to thrive.

The Children’s Movement focuses on making children the No. 1 priority for state investment. We have made progress, but have a long way to go.

Q: You held town hall meetings across the state to determine the priorities for Florida’s children’s movement; healthcare for children emerged as the No. 1 priority. Yet Florida’s government decided not to expand Medicaid. How do you feel about that?

It is still there to be done. In a country this rich and powerful, and generous and decent, surely every child should have access to high-quality medical care.

Q: The mission of the Children’s Trust is certainly not complete. What are the three or four accomplishments to date that are most meaningful and impactful to you?

A real commitment to incentives for high-quality early learning. High-quality after-school care. Health teams in public schools.

Q: Your book includes a number of “Life Lessons.” What is the best advice you ever got, and what do you think is the best advice you ever gave?

Best advice I got: Be fair.

Best advice I’ve given: Be fair.

Q: Aside from your work in early childhood education and readiness, what would you consider the most important undertaking of your life?

First place goes to my wife Roberta and my children and their families. I love them … and I have loved all my work — journalism and early learning.


Job title: Chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida

Age: 76

Spouse’s name: Roberta (married 55 years this Dec. 21.)

Children’s names: David III, Jennifer, Amanda, John and Dana.

Hobbies or interests outside work: Art, maps, antiquities and, above all, books (especially history and biographies).


What: Books & Books press presents David Lawrence Jr. and his book, “A Dedicated Life.”

When: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 7:30 - 9:30 p.m.

Where: Temple Judea ,5500 Granada Boulevard, Coral Gables

Tickets: $27.99 plus tax and fees includes entry for two and a sign copy of the book. Order online at Stand-by tickets available at the door.