Born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, Dawson studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, where he was a student of Stanley White. He accepted an offer from Hideo Sasaki to study at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and received his M.L.A. in 1958. Dawson worked for the Sasaki firm while he was a student and afterwards, becoming a named principal in 1964 (Sasaki Dawson and DeMay). Dawson participated in the development of the firm into a national interdisciplinary practice, overseeing a diversity of projects including urban and waterfront developments, college and university campuses, resorts, and corporate headquarters in the U.S. and abroad.
Notable projects include Sea Pines Plantation master plan and Harbour Town waterfront development, Hilton Head, South Carolina, recognized for its innovate and ecologically-sensitive treatment; the Modernist Deere & Company Corporate Headquarters in Moline, Illinois (1959 with continuing for decades to follow); and Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park in Boston (1974-76), among the nation’s first revitalized waterfronts; followed by the renovation of historic Long Wharf, Boston (1978).
Other significant projects include the Modernist plaza and fountain at the Christian Science Center, Boston (1973), the redevelopment of downtown Newburyport, Massachusetts (1974-80), the Charleston Waterfront Park (1969-90), and National Harbor in Prince George's County, Maryland (2008). For his many achievements Dawson was named a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1987, and awarded the ASLA Medal in 1999.