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Alice Lawson, pioneering chemist and skier, dies at 70

Alice Lawson escorted her five little brothers and sisters on frequent visits to the Gary public library, bought them microscopes and cameras, and wowed them with her ski trips to New Zealand, Switzerland and Iceland.

They looked up to their smart, confident, disciplined, curious, glamorous big sister. When she moved to Chicago, they were thrilled to learn one of her neighbors was Bears legend Gale Sayers.

Ms. Lawson excelled at science and math before STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — was an acronym. She earned a chemistry degree at North Carolina Central University and a master’s in marketing at Illinois Institute of Technology. As a chemist at some of the nation’s biggest companies, she worked on shampoos, cosmetics and wound-care products.

In the 1970s, she joined a pioneering African-American ski club, the Sno-Gophers, founded in 1965 by Chicago DJ Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie. “We skied Interlaken, Switzerland; Queenstown, New Zealand; Courmayeur, Italy, Chamonix, France,” said Cynthia Yarbro, a fellow Sno-Gopher.

“She said to me she never felt more alive or clear-headed as when she was on the slopes,” said her sister, Geri Fields. “She skied the Midwest, and Vail, Aspen and Telluride; Vermont, Banff in Canada.”

<small><strong> IIT alum Alice Lawson | Provided photo</strong></small>
IIT alum Alice Lawson | Provided photo

Her siblings attribute their achievements, in part, to her influence. One, Ulysses Lawson, owns A Step Above men’s boutique, 1520 E. 87th St. Another brother, Norman Baylor, earned a doctorate and is a former director of the FDA Office of Vaccines Research Review. “I remember when she bought him his first microscope,” Geri Fields said. “He says she is the reason he became a scientist.” Another brother, Martin Baylor, is an engineer with an MBA. Geri Fields has an MBA in marketing.

Ms. Lawson, 70, died of a heart ailment Oct. 23 at her South Shore home.

She grew up in Gary. Her mother, Ceola Jackson Lawson, was an erudite woman from Canton, Mississippi, who wrote poetry and played piano. She worked as a housekeeper doing “cooking, cleaning, babysitting,” Geri Fields said. “The movie ‘The Help’ described our lives.”

Though she stood only 5-feet-1, Ms. Lawson, who attended Gary’s Froebel High School, was a surrogate parent. “We never, ever, ever wanted to disappoint her,” her sister said.

Chemist Alice Lawson was a globe-trotting skier | Provided photo
Chemist Alice Lawson was a globe-trotting skier | Provided photo

While she pursued a career in Chicago, she often would take her sisters out in the city.

“She would take us on Oak Street. We were just little colored girls from Gary, and to go on North Michigan and Oak Street and see people driving around in Jaguars and Rolls-Royces, all of that was just fabulous to us,” Geri Fields said.

Ms. Lawson worked at Pepsi-Cola and Johnson Products — the maker of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen — as well as at Deluxol, Lever Brothers and Chesebrough-Pond’s. When she died, she was employed at Hollister medical products, where she’d filed for a coating patent.

<small><strong>Alice Lawson was a glamorous and inspirational figure to her brothers and sisters | Provided photo</strong></small>
Alice Lawson was a glamorous and inspirational figure to her brothers and sisters | Provided photo

“Alice, I think, was accustomed to being the only black person, and oftentimes, the only woman” in the room, her sister said.

“When we went to Switzerland, Interlaken, we were the hit of the town,” Yarbro said. During Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” heyday “we took over the disco one night, and we were celebrities. We were walking down the street the next day and a young man asked, ‘Are you going to be at the disco tonight? Because I hear you guys have a good time.’ ”

Sometimes, she traveled with another ski club, the Trendsetters.

To Ms. Lawson, a perfect day would have begun with shopping at Bloomingdale’s, followed by church at Fourth Presbyterian, a movie and dinner at Gibsons.

She loved the soprano of opera singer Leontyne Price and enjoyed challenging herself by playing Scrabble and watching “Jeopardy.” Ms. Lawson always drove a Volvo. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Ms. Lawson’s other sister, Patricia, died in a car accident in the 1970s at age 21. She is also survived by a cousin, Marguerite Fitzgerald. Services have been held.