It was a fairy tale life for lifelong educator and baseball coach Phil Lawler.
“Was it Peter Pan that said I never want to grow up? I looked at that and said, why not pick a job that would be fun the rest of your life?” Lawler said in a spring 2009 interview.
Born and raised in small town Iowa, Phil Lawler was one of six children. Growing up on the family farm, everyone had their roles and responsibilities.
“There was always this unwavering support for everybody else in the family,” said Dan Lawler, Phil’s older brother. “It was non-competitive but in a very intentional supportive way. Everybody was hoping that the other person would be successful and do good things.”
As a 4-sport athlete, Lawler graduated from Wall Lake High School in 1968. He met his wife, Denise, at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa.
After teaching in Iowa for three years, he came to Naperville to work as a physical education instructor at Madison Junior High. No one could have predicted the impact he would have on the community and beyond.
Coaching was always a dream of his. He began at Naperville North High School in 1976 working alongside his best friend Bill Seiple.
He was the freshman coach. I was the sophomore coach, and we had no senior class,” Seiple said. “We got our brains beat out but we had the opportunity to build something from scratch which was very special.”
In the summer of 1981, they both moved to Naperville Central for a new opportunity. The two built traditions of winning and running on and off the field every inning of every game.
He brought the same passion to Madison where he went from a gym teacher to a physical educator and pioneer. He saw physical education taking a back seat and began his fight for fitness.
“He got the first heart rate monitor in the district and saw what it could do and the information we could get on students,” said Paul Zientarski, District 203 Physical Education Department Chairman.
Using the new technology he saw a young girl’s heart rate reach an alarming 207 beats per minute during the mile run. It was a turning point in his career.
”The light bulbs went off and I go wait a minute this is scary. I’ve been evaluating students for the past 20 years based on what I saw and I was wrong. I was completely wrong,” Lawler said.
He formed a new PE philosophy that helped lead to the PE4 Life organization. He believed that every child could find a physical activity to fully embrace. Tirelessly, he worked to spread the word.
“He was the world’s greatest networker,” said Zientarski. “If he heard about someone he would get on the phone and contact them and he would mesmerize them.”
His excitement for physical education made for many late nights.
It would be a Sunday night at 9:00 and the phone would ring. It would be Phil, and I wouldn’t get to bed until 11:00,” Zientarski said. “Sometimes not even then, because I would be so fired up about what Phil had to say that my mind would be racing.”
Lawler received multiple national honors and he trained more than 1,700 educators in 42 states, and 10 countries. He bettered the lives of more than 2 million children.
“It wasn’t his desire to become well known. It was his desire to say how can I impact the world,” said Dan Lawler. “How can I change this place and other places so it’s a better place for everyone.”
On the baseball diamond he was inducted into the Illinois High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2006, the Redhawks won a state championship.
“Maybe we kind of completed each other,” said Seiple. “Maybe my weaknesses were his strengths and his weaknesses my strengths and I think that’s maybe why we worked so well.”
Last May, Naperville Central retired his number 29. It’s a reminder of his dedication to a baseball program and the community.
A constant throughout his life, closest to his heart was his family. He helped raise three kids and celebrated 5 grandchildren. No one was ever too far apart.
“All of us have people in our lives, that after you get done talking to them, you feel a little bit better about yourself and I think that was his gift,” Seiple said. “I had 35 years of that and my life was certainly enhanced by having known him and having the privilege to work with him and I’m really going to miss him a lot.”
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