Leonard Lawley was born in Cradley Heath on 13 March 1922 and attended Stourbridge Grammar School. Although he started as a fee payer, he was awarded a scholarship two years later. This proved a formative experience and to the end of his life he remained committed to the ideal of opening up opportunities to whoever could benefit from them.
In 1941, Professor Lawley volunteered to join the Royal Air Force, where he soon gained a position as an instructor teaching aircraft radio communications. He was selected to take a special two-year pass degree in physics and electrical communications at University College Wales in Swansea before resuming service as an officer.
In 1946, he had left the service and went back to Swansea to complete an honours degree in physics, going on to a PhD in the Newcastle division of the then federated Durham University. The university provided family accommodation and paid him a living wage to work as an instructor. In the course of his research, he patented a new invention to detect dangerous methane gas in coal mines.
After starting a teaching career at Regent Street Polytechnic, Professor Lawley was appointed head of department at Kingston Technical College in 1957, rapidly rising through the ranks to vice-principal and then principal.
The college flourished under his leadership and, in 1970, re-merged with the Kingston College of Art (from which it had separated in 1930) to become Kingston Polytechnic, one of about 30 in the country. Among the new offerings were 17 degree-level courses.
Director of Kingston Polytechnic until he retired in 1982, Professor Lawley devoted considerable time and effort to planning and developing extensive new facilities, notably the Penrhyn Road building (still at the heart of student life at what became Kingston University in 1992). When he left Kingston in 1982, he was awarded the honorary title of professor – the first in the institution’s history – for his achievements there.
Professor Lawley took pride in describing himself as “the only poly director in the country who went to work on his bike”. Outside office hours, his hobbies included fitting out an old Bedford Dormobile as a camper van with leather seats from a luxury Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire that he had picked up at a scrapyard.
He died of heart failure after a fall on 14 January and is survived by his wife Dorothy – whom he had known since they were teenagers – three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.