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Joel Smith Lawson Jr., physicist descended from Smithtown founders, dead at 91

Joel S. Lawson Jr. died on August 31,

Joel S. Lawson Jr. died on August 31, 2015 at the age of 91. Credit: Family photo

A St. James church graveyard will be the final resting place for a distinguished physicist whose ancestors established Smithtown and donated the 2 acres of church land where the burial will take place.

Joel Smith Lawson Jr., a native of St. James, was 91 when he died Aug. 31 at a retirement home in Honolulu, his family said. Burial will be at 3 p.m. Oct. 2 at St. James Episcopal Church.

Lawson grew up in St. James and left school in 1943 to join the Navy. He became a pilot and, after training, was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station in Illinois until his discharge in 1945.

He married Grace C. Rumbough the next year. She died in 1990. In 1991 he married Ann Libby, who died in 2013.

Lawson got his doctorate in physics in 1953 from the University of Illinois, a school he picked because it had one of the world's first particle accelerators. "He said he wanted to go where he could get to make a lot of really tiny things go really, really fast," his son, Joel S. Lawson III of Villanova, Pennsylvania, said.

Lawson moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, in 1958 to work for the Scientific Engineering Institute, focusing on radar technology and the application of computers for national defense projects.

He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965 to work as a special assistant in electronics for the Navy, and then to Hawaii in 1967 to become chief scientific adviser to the U.S. Pacific Command.

He returned to Washington in 1968 to become director of the Naval Research Laboratory.

Lawson was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences. He was the recipient of the Navy Meritorious Service Medal and the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the highest award to civilian employees of the Navy.

He retired to Hawaii in 1984.

"He was a pretty job-centric guy in the 20 years or so he was in Washington," his son said. While living in Belmont, he was a Boy Scouts leader and a fundraiser for UNICEF and the local United Way, his son said.

He did not have much time for sports or other hobbies, but played a passable game of golf while in his 80s.

Lawson was the sixth great-grandson of Richard Smythe, who established Smithtown in 1665. Lawson's mother, Garetta Reboul Lawson, was a descendant of Robert Blackwell, who started farming what is now Roosevelt Island in the East River in the late 1700s, Lawson's son Joel said.

A family joke, his son said, goes: "We were waving hello when the Pilgrims arrived."

His burial site is part of the 2 acres that Joel L.G. Smith, a descendant of Richard Smythe, donated to the church in 1854. The first service was held on July 3, 1854 -- 70 years before Joel Smith Lawson Jr. was born on July 3, 1924.

He is also survived by a daughter, Grace L. Hutchinson of Kaneohe, Hawaii; sons William H. Lawson of Honolulu and David R. Lawson of Santa Fe, New Mexico.; 10 grandchildren; and five-great grandchildren.

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