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John Cawthorne, 70, longtime educator, BC associate dean

By Kathleen McKenna
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2012
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Although he retired from his post as associate dean at Boston College last year, John Cawthorne continued his yearly tradition of driving with a van full of students to the Holy Family school in Natchez, Miss., to deliver books and supplies, tackle various projects, and connect with the community.

“When he went this year,” said Mr. Cawthorne’s daughter, Maya Eeson of Framingham, “I asked him, ‘Why do you drive all that way? Why don’t you fly?’ He said the money they saved by driving went toward helping the kids and teachers at the school.”

A teacher, administrator, researcher, and advocate, Mr. Cawthorne also was a coach and activist for many years in Brookline, where he volunteered time helping the community and its children long after his own children were grown.

Mr. Cawthorne, a scholar of urban education who had taught all age groups, died of cancer Aug. 14 in Boston Medical Center. He was 70 and lived in Allston.

In 1988, he began working at Boston College as a researcher, and soon became a popular teacher and adviser who invited students to call him by his first name. He retired last spring after 13 years as associate dean for students and outreach at BC’s Lynch School of Education.

Maureen Kenny, interim dean of the Lynch School, said in a statement that Mr. Cawthorne “was a tremendous advocate for our students both inside and outside the classroom.”

She added that “the impact of his work and his dedication to the Lynch School will live on through the accomplishments of the many persons whose lives were transformed by his heart and spirit.”

During the Civil Rights movement, he helped register voters in Mississippi. Later, he became involved in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

“He held a lot of jobs across the board, but he was always a teacher first,” said his son Malcolm of Brookline, a teacher at Brookline High School.

Perhaps because Mr. Cawthorne attended a segregated school, “he really instilled the value of education” in his children, his son said. “Both he and my mother believed that education was not just an equalizer, but something they could never take away from you.”

At the time when the Cawthorne children were young, blacks made up just a small percentage of Brookline’s population, said Mr. Cawthorne’s son Langston of Medford.

“Raising a black family in the ’70s and ’80s could be tough,” he said. “A lot of teachers hadn’t had any experience with black children, and we were sometimes treated differently.”

His father, he said, “was always at the forefront” when it came to his children’s education, and believed all black children deserved fair treatment at school.

Mr. Cawthorne also helped found Concerned Black Citizens of Brookline, a group that advocated for equality in public schools.

John Edward Cawthorne was born in 1942 in Tulsa, Okla., and also lived in Omaha, Minneapolis, and Portland, Ore., as a boy. During high school he distinguished himself as a track star, Langston said.

Mr. Cawthorne graduated from Harvard University in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He took a job teaching high school history in Washington, D.C., where he met LaVerne Simms. They married in 1967.

He graduated in 1969 with a master’s degree in education from what was then the Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education, and moved his family to Brookline soon after.

In and around Boston he worked as a teacher, a principal, and a coordinator for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program.

He also was very involved in the National Urban League, serving as vice president for education in 1995. In addition, he was a consultant to school systems in Boston, Cambridge, and other communities nationwide.

In his honor, the Lynch School at BC established the John E. Cawthorne Chair in Teacher Education for Urban Schools in 2003.

Maureen Raymond, an associate director at the Lynch School, said Mr. Cawthorne “had a unique leadership style where he allowed others to be creative and responsible in their own way, while giving his full support.”

He was “a real people person,” she said, who was “always available . . . and always gave others, students and colleagues alike, the courtesy of listening, understanding, and caring.”

Mr. Cawthorne taught students at every level, from kindergarten through graduate school. After his retirement, he volunteered in kindergarten and high school classrooms.

“He had a very big heart, and always wanted to help people,” his daughter said. “That was the kind of man he was.”

An avid reader, Mr. Cawthorne loved buying books for friends and family.

“You could definitely count on getting a book from him for your birthday, Christmas, or any other holiday that came up,” his daughter said.

Patrick Gamere, a longtime family friend who is a videographer for New England Sports Network, said Mr. Cawthorne was a well-known and much-loved coach in Brookline.

“He gave me confidence,” Gamere said. “I was just 10 years old and he said, ‘I have big plans for you.’ That meant everything to me.”

As a coach, Gamere said, Mr. Cawthorne “was tough, but he kept it loose, too. We always had fun.”

In addition to his two sons, daughter, and wife, Mr. Cawthorne leaves a sister, Elsa Connor of Iowa; a brother, Herbert of San Diego; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at noon Sept. 8 in Hibernian Hall in Roxbury.

The night before Mr. Cawthorne died, Gamere said, Langston asked him to come to the hospital.

“I thought there would be people from the old neighborhood, but there must have been 45 people there, and I only knew three or four of them,” Gamere said. “I always knew Mr. Cawthorne as a coach and a dad, but that made me realize there was so much more to his life.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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