Walter A. Lawson, a nationally recognized French horn maker and a former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musician, died Wednesday of heart disease at Reeders Memorial Home in Boonsboro. The former Catonsville resident was 84.
Born in Binghamton, N.Y., Mr. Lawson studied piano and horn as a youngster. During World War II, he worked for the Associated Press as a teletype mechanic and served in the Army Signal Corps. He was stationed on Okinawa when the war ended.
Using his veterans benefits, he moved to Baltimore in 1947 and enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory. He studied piano with Frederick Griesinger and horn with Jerry T. Knop and Ward O. Fearn. He joined the Baltimore Symphony two years later as second horn and played with the orchestra until 1976.
In 1949, to make some money, he began repairing instruments at Ted's Music Shop on Centre Street.
Mr. Lawson struck out on his own in 1956 and opened the Lawson Brass Instrument Repair Co. in his garage. He later moved the business to a building on Winters Lane in Catonsville.
"Repairing was good because you got to look at everyone else's horn," he said in a 1999 Sun article.
When he left the orchestra, Mr. Lawson moved himself and the operation outside Boonsboro in Washington County, where years before he had purchased a campsite. Working alongside his three sons, Bruce, Duane and Paul, he formed Lawson Brass Instruments Inc., a business dedicated to the design and manufacture of horns. The family sold the business six months ago.
"He loved to tinker with things," said his son Bruce A. Lawson, who lives in Hagerstown. "He was extremely hardworking and put in six days a week almost all his life."
A 1999 Sun profile said, "Walter Lawson and his boys help others make beautiful music. In their hands, fat rolls of sheet metal and long tubes of copper become the graceful curves and polished bells of some of the world's finest French horns."
His horns each took 187 hours to make. His son Paul, a machinist, built the valves. Another son, Duane, polished and lacquered surfaces. Bruce, the acoustician, made sure each horn had the Lawson signature sound, the article noted.
The article noted that the French horn is "a treacherous beast, its coils of tubing perfect for tripping up the performances of its practitioners. Individual pitches are so close together that depressing a single key might let loose a cascade of notes."
Mr. Lawson said that his transformation from repairman to Lawson Brass Instruments happened "by osmosis." He first learned to modify horns and then make ancillary parts. By 1979, he was ready to put it all together.
"Some small makers can buy parts and assemble them," Mr. Lawson told a Sun reporter. "But you don't have any control about how the horn plays unless you make the parts yourself."
In 1979, a mugger attacked Mr. Lawson on a Frederick street, fracturing his skull and jaw and paralyzing part of his face.
"I just test horns now. That's all," he said in the 1999 interview.
Mr. Lawson took out a single ad each year in a trade magazine -- and relied on word-of-mouth to sell his instruments. At one point, his son Bruce said, he was back-ordered for five years.
"Somebody gets one and if he likes it, they sell themselves," Mr. Lawson said.
In 1996, the Small Business Administration named Mr. Lawson Maryland's Exporter of the Year.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. June 27 at the Bast Funeral Home, 7606 Old National Pike, Boonsboro.
In addition to his three sons, survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Ann Lawson; two granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.