By Lawrence Dillon

I recently read John Baker’s story on the NFED website where he shared his ectodermal dysplasia journey. I found his story to be inspirational and familiar. I consulted my younger brother (who does not have ectodermal dysplasia like I do) and he encouraged me to tell my story.

My story is similar to John Baker’s story in some weird ways. Both John and I are affected by hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia and cannot sweat. I, too, began life in the pool at eight years old, not competitively, however.

My father and mother were career employees at the Veterans Administration (VA). We moved five times in seven years (born in Miami, moved to Akron, Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; and Marian, Indiana and then settled in Butler, Pennsylvania). As chief of building management at the VA in Butler, my dad also was manager of the swimming pool. That’s where I learned to swim.

Competitive Swimming

As a kid on the VA grounds, we had plenty of families with children. All pre-teen and teen kids in Western Pennsylvania were Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers fans. As such, we all played baseball, basketball and football. Each sport was incompatible with persons like us because of our inability to sweat. In order to play, I brought a 5-gallon bucket of water and a washcloth to the field/court and I would periodically dunk my head to cool off.

I discovered competitive swimming (or rather it discovered me) in seventh grade. During a PE class, the instructor was conducting a swim class and I asked about whether I could try out for the diving team. See, after I learned to swim, I hit the VA pool diving board (literally-I have a large scar on my back to prove it) doing 1 1/2 somersaults and back flips. My dad thought that diving might be a good fit.

One day, I showed up at the high school and met the coach, Pat Madden, himself somewhat a legend.  He put me into lane six with two other seventh graders (Mike Kriley, PA State Champion in the 50, and Bob Cummings, now an industry leader in the bent glass business). Coach Madden nicknamed me right out of the gate, “No Sweat”.

My Dental Struggles

Equally familiar to John Baker’s story was my struggle with dentistry. My mother would take me on the 50-minute one-way journey from Butler to the University of Pittsburgh pediatric dentistry clinic to get dentures. Each trip (and there were so many that I could not keep count) would require that I take the day off from school (a real joy for some kids, I suppose). I was the test subject for the dental school interns and residents. They were there to observe and learn.

I had to sit there and realize just how “different” I was to them. I did not want to be different, but they were able to gain knowledge from working on my mouth. A young person’s mouth is always changing. Thus, the need for new, properly fitting dentures was ongoing throughout high school.

My Faith Fueled Me

My mother’s faith was strong – so strong that she enrolled her two boys in St. Paul’s Catholic School. I remained there through sixth grade and successfully pleaded to be allowed to attend public school. As a Catholic, we attended Mass every Sunday. As we grew up, we attended Mass at the VA chapel and worked with the patients, bringing them to and from the wards. I was an altar boy. I helped with setting up the service.

Perhaps that seed of faith sustained me during the lonely times I would face in the future. Without knowing anyone else like us who was affected by ectodermal dysplasia, it is very easy to feel alone, especially when people treat you differently. But, my faith fueled me to persevere.

Like John Baker, I too, joined DeMolay as a teenager. My grandfather was a Mason. My mother thought that joining this organization would broaden my horizons. Alas, I just didn’t stick with it.

Hooked on Swimming

My competitive swimming skills grew. I started at the YMCA as a prep swimmer (11-12 age group). I was part of a successful free relay that made it to Mid-Atlantic championships at Lehigh University in 1972. Once I got a taste, I was hooked. I kept progressing into distance free, individual medley, backstroke and butterfly. I just couldn’t get enough.

This is a photo of a roster from 1977 showing the Men's YMCA Championship Meet Results.

I had two-a-day practices at the high school from September to March and at the YMCA through April. During the summer, we would swim long-course meters at the municipal pool as a club team. Swimming became my private obsession. I knew that the pool was the place where my condition would not matter.

Once I could drive, our crew of swimmers formed an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) club team through the Butler YMCA. We would travel to compete against elite swimmers (e.g. Pan Am games competitors Mel Nash and Bill Glasstetter) at the Thanksgiving Meet, the Christmas Meet, Moon Pentathlon, and others. This was without any coach.

Relay Hair

This is a newspaper article showing four teenagers with their heads out of the car window. Each had shaved their heads to spell out the letters P-I-A-A.

By our junior year, we competed as a Pennsylvania State Championship caliber medley relay team. We shaved our heads (not much of a task for me, of course). Our heads were featured in an Associated Press photograph with each of us having retained “PIAA” in our hair – one letter for each relay member. It took five bottles of Lady Clairol hair dye to get my hair dark enough to see my letter.

With so little hair to start with, my mother was heartbroken to see what we had done. Finally, we were back at the State Championships competing in our senior year. Our relay was good enough to earn All-American Honorable Mention honors that year.

This is a photo from a newspaper article  from the 1970s showing the Butler High School Swim Team members who were heading to the state tournament.

My high school season was completed, and I had a complete “peak and taper” for my spot as anchor of the relay. The YMCA National Championship meet was only four weeks away. I competed in the 500 free, the 400 IM and the 1650 free in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in April of 1977. With the help of my counter, Mike Kriley, I finished 13th with a 16:54.255.

College Athlete

My high school competitive swimming became my means to an end to get to college. I attended Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. My mother especially wanted her son to be close by “in case anything should happen”. As an NAIA (now a NCAA Division 3) swim team, the Westminster Titans embraced me as a “stud”.

The college program was like nothing I had ever experienced. This was a tight group. Nearly all joined the same fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi. However, because of my insecurity with my looks and my dentures, I roomed with an upperclassman member of the swim team, not a freshman. Once again, I was “different”.

That year, I swam with two Division 1 distance men and nearly touched both of them out in the 1650 at the conference meet. I went onto the national meet in Portland Oregon and competed against the top swimmers in North America.

Out of the Water and Off to the Big City

Beginning in my second year at college, my body (shoulders especially) was screaming at me to stop the madness. I decided that I wanted to take my life in a different direction, away from competitive swimming. Needless to say, this shocked my teammates, my family and everyone else who knew me.

Ultimately, a new set of friends, with new interests (including spelunking and rock climbing in West Virginia) and new initiatives led me to graduate on time with a 3.3 GPA and a minor in history and major in political science. This was supposed to be the fast track to law school.

Through the grace of God, I attended New York Law School in the fall of 1981. Yes, from the horse and buggy of an Amish community in Western Pennsylvania to the “A-Train” of Manhattan. Culture shock would be an understatement.

A fish out of water? You bet. Law school was quite a struggle, personally and academically. I was different (looking and in every other way). I took advantage of all the culture there was in New York. In the early eighties, New York City was nothing like it is today. Graffiti, crime, and triple locked doors were the norm – a far cry from my life in rural, western Pennsylvania.

Where I Met My Wife

In 1984, I graduated on time from law school, with my proud parents in attendance at the Lincoln Center. After twice sitting for the Bar exam, I was sworn in as a freshly minted lawyer. In the mid-1980s, the sagging economy made getting a job in law tough, especially for a fellow who ranked in the bottom quarter of the class. In January of 1986, I landed my first job as an Assistant Public Defender, in of all places, Utica, New York. I swore to my college buddies that I would herd sheep in Montana before I ever practiced criminal defense. I did not get on that horse. Never say never.

This is where God presented me with a precious gift: my wife, Lorie. She had two children from a prior marriage. We fell in love and married in April of 1987. We remain married with her children having their children – our five grandchildren. I did not what to have my genes passed to the next generation.

My Career in Law

Though the grace of God, with the help of others, I was fortunate to progress in my legal career, working as an Assistant County Attorney prosecuting juvenile offenders for nine years. I then served as an Assistant New York State Attorney General for 21 years. On December 26, 2018, I “retired” from government service in New York.

This is a newspaper article about a trial. In the photo, it's a courtroom with two men. Lawrence, the attorney, is in a suit and showing a piece of paper to a man on the stand.

Lorie and I knew that we were leaving New York State and the deep snow behind us for the more pleasant environment of Knoxville, Tennessee. We were set to move on July 1, 2019. In the meantime, the local District Attorney knew me well and asked if I could help out until we left for Tennessee. On the night of my retirement party, I “un-retired” for six months to work in the Oneida County District Attorney’s office.

Upon leaving New York, I once again “un-retired” to become an Assistant District Attorney General for the 6th Judicial District in Knoxville, Tennessee. I have been blessed to work with the highest caliber of prosecutors anywhere. The community of East Tennessee has wrapped their arms around Lorie and I, so we feel we are a real part of this community.

Time to Test the Waters

Having taken off a season (lasting 43 years) from swimming, I decided I wanted to test the waters again. I joined the local YMCA in Knoxville. Without a coach or a team, I began working out cautiously.

In November of 2021, I entered my first Masters swim meet in Nashville. When that was successful, I set my sights on the YMCA Masters meet in March 2022. In between time, I continued to train on my own, and compete in Masters meets in Cincinnati, Ohio and Auburn, Alabama.

Once in Orlando in April, 2022, I competed in the 60-64 age group (at age 62, which I found out was a bit of a handicap-best to be at the bottom of your age group). All things considered, it was not a bad comeback: 2nd in the 1650 and 1000 free, 3rd in the 500 free, 3rd in the 50 back, 5th in the 200 free, 6th in the 100 fly, 7th in the100 free, and 9th in the 50 free.

Why Do I Do It?

That experience has taught me that you can’t do it alone.

As of January 2, I have joined the University of Tennessee Masters program. They work out four times per week. This is as robust of a program as I have ever experienced. My plan of action is to aim high. I want to swim in the YMCA Masters Nationals in April/May of 2025 in Ft. Lauderdale where I shall compete in the 65-69 age group with my brother at the other end of the pool counting for me.

Some would say, why do this? Isn’t it a real grind to get up at 4 a.m. in order to be in the pool by 5:15 a.m.? My answer, is yes. It is a grind.

But so is life. Face it head on. Nobody’s going to give you a pass, you earn it. With the help of God and others, you push on. Head down, and put one foot in front of the other.

I have long forgotten all the nasty words people have said about the way I look. In the water, everybody is the same. That clock ticks by every second for everyone.

Share Your Story

7 comments on “Finding Success in the Water, in Law and in Love”

  1. 1
    Mike Kriley on February 21, 2024

    Oh my gosh Hooch (Larry’s other given nickname, long story) that’s an amazing story. Mainly because you’re an amazing person and I am truly glad that our paths crossed and that you are my friend.

  2. 2
    Joshua Nicholas on February 22, 2024

    WOW‼️ Thanks Larry for sharing your incredible journey. What a life you are living…and living to the fullest. I admire your tenacity of purpose and you character.
    Getting to know you last October In Texas during our one on one breakfasts at the hotel at our “45 year…Meet in Gladness” reunion was a particularly special part of that trip for me. I don’t believe I mentioned that til now.

    I am very happy for you and Lori.
    And I’m glad to know you, reconnect and call you my friend.

  3. 3
    Paul Webber on February 26, 2024

    Thank you sharing your story, Larry. I knew a lot of it but there was a lot that I did not know. I already did know that you are a hard-working SOB ! It has been a great 50-year friendship and I look forward to spending time with you this year.

  4. 4
    Matt on February 28, 2024

    Outstanding story. I’m very proud to have known you and Lori for the last 37 years. You amaze everyday with your custom for squeezing every moment out of life.
    7 P’s……

  5. 5
    Frank Cicco on March 5, 2024

    FANTASTIC- great read & thank you for sharing. Hope to see you soon.

  6. 6
    Melinda Rosson on March 18, 2024

    Wow what a story! What a life! I have only known you for three years, but I have awe and admiration for all you do. I especially admire the way you always put God first. You are such a good example for me to follow. I love your wife, Lori, and I am so glad to have you for a friend and neighbor.

  7. 7
    Melinda R on March 18, 2024

    Wow what a story! What a life! I have the greatest admiration for all that you do. I especially admire the way you always put God first. You are such an example for me to follow. I love your wife Lori, and I am thankful to have you as a friend and neighbor.

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