When longtime educator Lawyer H. Chapman retired from the Philadelphia Schools in 1993, he wasted little time moving on to a new assignment.
Chapman spent more than six decades as a teacher, principal, and administrator in three districts. He plans to retire after 25 years from the Cherry Hill School District on Dec. 31, possibly for the last time.
“I have enjoyed every minute. I fell in love with teaching,” said Chapman, 84, of Philadelphia. “It’s just a part of me.”
Chapman is wrapping up his career for the last four years as principal of Cherry Hill’s Alternate High School, which enrolls about three dozen students who need emotional and behavioral support. His staff planned his farewell party with the theme “The legend has retired.”
“He was great,” said former student Drew Sagedy, 20, a junior criminal justice major at Holy Family University in Philadelphia. “He’s definitely touched a lot of lives.”
Superintendent Joseph Meloche recognized Chapman at a school board meeting Tuesday as “a true, true educational leader.” Both served as principals in the district in 2003; Chapman at Thomas Paine Elementary and Meloche at Kingston Elementary.
“The man has never stopped giving,” Meloche said.
Chapman was among the first Black principals in Cherry Hill, which enrolls about 11,000 students. He pushed for equity and helped form a minority achievement committee, and has been cochair of the district’s Cultural Proficiency/Equity/Character Committee.
Pat McCargo, a member of the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association, said Chapman was “the go-to person” when the group tackled thorny racial issues in the district, such as the national furor that erupted in 2017 over a school production of the musical Ragtime that included racial slurs. Chapman annually gives a $1,000 scholarship through the group, she said.
“He’s a champion for diversity and discrimination issues,” McCargo said. “He was always at the forefront.”
During a stint as principal at Cherry Hill East from 2013 to 2016, Chapman was known for greeting students as “scholars” as he walked the halls. It was part of his vision statement for the school.
“If you keep saying something people will begin to believe it,” Chapman said.
Chapman also was an assistant principal at Cherry Hill West and an assistant superintendent in the district. He said one of his proudest achievements was boosting student performance at Paine, which received additional federal funding as a Title 1 school to improve student achievement. In 2002, the school was recognized as a Governor’s School of Excellence.
Born in Jackson, Miss., Chapman is the oldest of four siblings. His mother cleaned offices and his father was a laborer. He initially wanted to become a train engineer, but later decided on teaching.
After obtaining a bachelor’s of science in physics and math at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, he joined the Philadelphia School District as a math teacher in 1958. He later earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Temple University.
In Philadelphia, he spent 10 years in the classroom before becoming an administrator. He was the principal at William Penn High, Jay Cooke Middle, and Stoddart Fleisher Junior High and an administrative assistant to the superintendent. He retired in 1993 and immediately began his next job.
“Why would I need a break?” he asked. “I’ve been working for all of my life.”
Chapman spent the next two years in the Paulsboro School District as an assistant high school principal. He moved to Cherry Hill schools in 1995.
Married for 61 years, Chapman plans to spend more time with his wife, Rosetta, a retired researcher, including a cruise to Barcelona. The couple have three children and two grandchildren. A daughter, Karen, is a music and dance teacher and a granddaughter, Cierra, plans to pursue a career in education.
Another daughter, Kim Belin, said her father brought students he mentored to their home so often that she mistakenly believed they were her siblings. His work inspired her to mentor youth and give back to the community.
“He truly loves those kids,” said Belin, a New Jersey administrative law judge. “In my book, he’s an amazing person.”
Chapman is an elder at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He is also a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He served on numerous boards, including the YMCA of Germantown.
Asked whether this retirement is final, he replied with a smile, “I’ve lived long enough never to say never.”