Robert E. Lawler, a retired Boston policeman who became a well-known figure to thousands of Boston schoolchildren as an original "Officer Friendly," died Monday at his West Roxbury home of Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 81.
"My dad became a police officer because he wanted to make a difference; he always had a helping hand to lend to everyone," said his son Joseph P. of West Roxbury. "His friends and colleagues always said that the world was a better place because of Bob."
In 1970, the Boston Police Department formed the "Officer Friendly" program to repair strained relations between police officials and youths after the tumultuous 1960s. The officers sought to teach schoolchildren about safety and security and to promote a positive image as a fatherly figure or friend.
"Bob was the most unusual policeman I ever met," said his friend of 50 years, Jim Buchanan, who was a Boston police superintendent in the late 1960s. "He always did anything he could for somebody. If anyone was in trouble, he would form a little committee to solve the problem. He was always there to fill the void -- he was a real natural."
Mr. Lawler headed the program, which sent police officers on visits to classrooms in city schools, kindergarten through third grade. The program was funded by a grant from the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, and Mr. Lawler participated for more than 15 years.
"The city was having a dilemma. The Police Department knew that they had to get into schools to emphasize that they were their friends," said his daughter-in-law Ruth Lawler of West Roxbury. "Because of his charisma, magnetism, and gift of words, they appointed him to that position. His greatest gift was to children."
Born in Hyde Park, Mr. Lawler was 12 when he and his three brothers were orphaned by their mother's death. Brought up by an aunt, Mr. Lawler went on to graduate from Hyde Park High School.
In 1942, he joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific as a gunner's mate first class on an LST-683 Class Tank Landing Ship. During World War II, he earned the American Theater Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Mr. Lawler joined the Boston Police Department in 1946, serving in Mattapan. In 1954, he began working in the traffic division and in 1969, he became the news liaison officer to the police commissioner.
In 1978, after completing four years of night classes, Mr. Lawler graduated from Northeastern University with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
In 1979, after suffering a heart attack, he retired from the Police Department after 33 years of service.
He devoted his retirement to his family, and enjoyed splitting his time between homes in West Roxbury and East Falmouth.
Mr. Lawler was a member and past commander of American Legion Post 251 for 58 years and its service officer for 35 years.
He was a past president of the Boston Police Relief Association, as well as a member of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 3340, the Massachusetts Safety Officers League, and Chapter 20 of the Mended Hearts Society.
He was also an active member of the Charles River Association for Retarded Citizens in Needham.
"We all wanted his attitude, his zest and zeal for life," said his daughter-in-law. "When his Irish eyes were smiling, the world was bright and gay."
In addition to his son, Mr. Lawler leaves his wife of 57 years, Rita M. (Weener) of West Roxbury; three other sons, Robert E. Jr. of San Jose, Calif., Stephen G. of East Falmouth, and Brian A. of West Roxbury; three daughters, Irene Todesca of Westwood, Janet Libby of East Falmouth, and Dianne K. of West Roxbury; a brother, James of West Roxbury; and seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said today at 10 a.m. in St. Theresa Church in West Roxbury. Burial, with full military and police honors, will be at 1 p.m. in Massachusetts National Cemetery, Bourne.