Memories of Alexander Lawson
I entered graduate school at R.I.T. in the School of Printing in the fall of 1973. I had just received my B.A. with majors in Journalism and English from the University of Iowa, and I was infused with the virus of private press publishing. I had operated Cedar Creek Press since a high school student, and had a fair collection of printing type and well-used letterpress equipment.
In my first semester at R.I.T., one of the courses I was required to take was History of Printing with Alexander S. Lawson. I, unlike some of my fellow students, was thoroughly engaged in the subject, and enjoyed Mr. Lawson’s stories and enthusiasm for his topic. He welcomed opportunities to talk about typefaces and design, and had many little discussions in his office on topics relating to private press printing, mechanical vs. hand composition, paper suitable for small book production, my dreams for better equipment, etc.
I recall Mr. Lawson calling to me as we passed in the hallway and letting me know that a new volume had been acquired for the Cary Library that I should stop by and see. I worked part-time in a shop downtown as a film stripper, and on my breaks I would “hit” the used bookstores and antique shops in the area. One day I found two very early type catalogs from Fry & Steele, a British type foundry. The owner of the store had evidently an idea of their value as he had priced them well above the budget of a graduate student. I reported my finds back to Mr. Lawson, and they made their way to the Cary collection.
The book production seminar class, organized by Mr. Lawson was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the publishing industry and how trade books were produced. He had scheduled several different industry experts through the semester, each one bringing his expertise regarding composition, printing, bindery and distribution topics. As a field trip in that class, we visited Vail-Ballou Press in Binghamton, NY. It was at Vail-Ballou that we saw the full range of technology, from 72” Miehle flatbed letterpress presses printing Nelson bibles from electrotype plates to the Cameron Belt press, the newest “thing” in book production.
When we met on campus to load up the vehicles that morning, we had two students driving, plus one on a motorcycle, and Mr. Lawson. He commented many years later that he was gratified that I was the only student who chose to ride with him and that he knew that they expected to hear historical hogwash from him all the way to Binghamton and back. Well, I have to say I enjoyed the ride and an opportunity to hear a few more of his stories.
Once he recounted a story from his experiences at R.I.T.’s downtown campus. He discovered that by the end of the semester, some of the handset type cases were getting a bit thin on sorts. One evening as he was heading for his car, he noticed something shiny in the alley next to the building, and found a pile of type characters directly beneath one of the windows in the composition lab. At least one of the students was using a quick distribution scheme. Mr. Lawson’s comment was that he didn’t understand why the student hadn’t just tossed the type in one of the casting machine pots and not left damaging evidence behind.
I believe I may have been the only grad student for whom Mr. Lawson served as thesis advisor. The topic I chose, while not exactly a historical one, interested Mr. Lawson, and he had some contacts that helped me with background and technical information and became members of my thesis committee. I think he enjoyed that experience, and certainly helped me a great deal with planning my research project.
Alex Lawson “graduated” from R.I.T., and wrote that it was his plan in retirement to “watch the birds” and play with photography. Through the years which followed, I enjoyed my occasional little notes from him, and as he culled out items from his files, he would drop items in the mail he thought would interest me. I kept him apprised of my activities and new publications. He always had a good word and a comment on the design of my letterhead or type choice in a new book on which I was working or had just finished.
My last visit with Alex and Evelyn Lawson was in Sun City, Florida, in the retirement apartment complex they had chosen. We had a cocktail and dinner in the dining room, then had a chance to talk a bit about where his journey had taken him. Even though he was battling health difficulties, he was greatly enthused as he had just received a CD with hundreds of new fonts (supplied by one of his former students) and couldn’t wait to try some of them out. He “printed” those days from a desktop computer, and made little cards and mottoes to share with fellow residents and to include in letters he sent. He commented that so many type faces and sizes would have never fit into even the labs at R.I.T., and would have severely stressed the structure of the building.
As his students gather with stories on this website, I hope we all will recall our own views and memories of Prof. Alex Lawson and how his quiet influence has impacted us all over the years.
John G. Henry
1975 R.I.T. Graduate with M.S. in Printing Technology
Mason City, Iowa