John W. Lawton grew up in Yakima, Washington. He holds degrees from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Washington State University in Pullman. He spent his career in city finance and management with positions as City Manager of Great Falls, Montana, and Assistant Administrator in Billings. He was appointed by two governors to consecutive terms on the Montana Heritage Preservation Commission. He won an international award for professional work in done in Central Asia, traveling extensively there.