Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tom Lyons, Rest in Peace

One of my favorite Newburyporters--I have a lot of favorites but he was way up there--Tom Lyons recently passed away.  My condolences to his wife Eleanor and the rest of the family.

Tom took his love of American history and humor and applied it to his community activities in Newburyport.

Here's an email he sent several councillors last year:
Merry Christmas,

            I am asking you to come up with a couple of public officials to be on the Commission on Disabilities.  We need a couple and I would prefer at least one male as I am the only male left on the Commission and I get beat up.

            Happy New Year too

                                                            Tom Lyons

Tom's passing is covered here in the Daily News:

And I went and found this article in the New York Times from 1999:

Teaching as a Torrent of Bubbling Information

Published: July 31, 1999
One of the rewards of teaching is the feedback from students, delayed though it may be. ''Sometimes you get a letter 15 or 20 years later,'' Thomas T. Lyons said as he reflected on his 36 years of teaching history at Phillips Academy, one of the nation's leading prep schools.
Or 36 years later. When Mr. Lyons, 65, retired last month, he was deluged by tributes from former students. One admiring two-page, handwritten letter arrived from Texas, from a student Mr. Lyons had taught in his first year here, George W. Bush (class of '64). About the same time, Mr. Bush, the Governor of Texas and front-running contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, did his former teacher the mixed favor of taking him national, saying in a television interview that Mr. Lyons ''was probably the most influential teacher on me.''
Mr. Lyons says he was touched by the praise, but since receiving the letter he has been avoiding reporters who want to talk about Mr. Bush, with whom he has not spoken since graduation. (Mr. Lyons does say this: ''He was a nice guy whom everyone liked.'') But Mr. Lyons is a teacher, and his relationships with students are private. Besides, as his students attest, there is so much else to talk about, endlessly.
When he returned to the campus today to talk about teaching, Mr. Lyons held forth exuberantly with barely a break, or segue, on his beloved Supreme Court, which he has spent his life studying and teaching; its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and a related case, Briggs v. Elliott, the subject of the last of his nine books; the first African-American history course he taught, at Dartmouth College years ago; the vibrance of Andover's diverse and co-ed student body, so different from the all-male, overwhelmingly white prep school where he began his career; the strength and goodness of his wife of 41 years, Eleanor, and the book he has been reading this summer about polio, a disease that struck him when he was a 20-year-old football player at Brown University and left him unable to walk without crutches.
It was, as his colleagues and students had made clear in their farewell speeches and toasts, a fair reflection of his teaching style, a relentless enthusiasm that could intimidate, overwhelm, even daze, but that ultimately inspired.
''Taking U.S. history with Lyons was a bit like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,'' Vic Henningsen, the chairman of Phillips Academy's history department, said in his tribute. ''You had to struggle to stay afloat amid the torrents of information, but you survived, you never forgot the ride, and you always thought it was worth it.''
Someone like Mr. Lyons only adds to the mystery of what makes a great teacher. Trying to succinctly explain Mr. Lyons's talent, Mr. Henningsen said in his speech, was like ''pointing at one intersection of rock and water on the Colorado River and saying, 'There you go, that explains the Grand Canyon.' ''
Year after year, the students who entered Room 13 in Samuel Phillips Hall for American history, or the wildly popular, hard-to-get-into senior seminar on constitutional law, encountered a big man with silver hair and a booming voice who still had the presence of the star athlete he was back at Reading High School, 15 miles and a world away from Phillips Academy.
An hour into the morning, his shirt was invariably untucked and ink stained, and the desks around him were strewn with copies of the original historical documents he was forever digging up and sharing with his classes. Living and breathing American history, Mr. Lyons demanded intellectual rigor and a devotion not only to the facts but also to the human beings -- Presidents and common people -- who make history.
His heroes included Eleanor Roosevelt; Jane Addams, a leader in the women's suffrage and pacifist movements and co-founder of one of the nation's first social settlements; Eugene Debs, the labor leader and Socialist candidate for President; William J. Brennan Jr., the late Supreme Court Justice, and John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement and Democratic Congressman from Atlanta.
Recalling Mr. Lyons in the classroom, Charles van der Horst, class of '70, who is a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and a leading AIDS researcher, said: ''He stands up and he's waving those long silver crutches, and banging them on the table. You didn't dare fall asleep. And he knew everything. He would wander around, smacking the table, smacking you and getting you to think. It was the most exciting class I've ever taken.''
Mr. Lyons, a Harvard graduate, was chairman of the academy's history department for five years, but he was not interested in administration. He loved teaching and he loved teen-agers -- ''that least lovable of subspecies,'' said David Cohen, class of '70, who is assistant director of education for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
''There was an endless parade of kids through his house,'' said Mr. Cohen, who was among them. ''His enthusiasm extends to you.''
The son of a journalist -- his father, Louis Lyons, was a reporter for The Boston Globe and a longtime curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard -- Mr. Lyons began each year by conducting long personal interviews with each student in his class.
Mr. Henningsen recalled in his farewell: ''Fall afternoons are likely to find Lyons deep in conversation with a student, saying something like, 'Your dad's a millworker? Tell me a bit about that.' '' (And if there are more millworkers' sons, and more black, Hispanic and Asian students than there were in the old Andover, then it is due in part to the efforts of reformers like Mr. Lyons.)
Last year, as a junior, Julie Stephens took Mr. Lyons's American history class, and her life was changed. ''It's the level of intensity,'' she said. In the spring Ms. Stephens, who is from Arlington, Va., discovered just how intense Mr. Lyons could be when she wrote a long paper for class. Her subject: how race and urban politics had shaped the subway system in Washington.
''Mr. Lyons must have invested 20 hours in me just on that paper,'' Ms. Stephens said. ''When I got back my first rough draft and read his comments, I burst into tears. He said: 'Don't worry, I'm trying to push you. You have to get the human element. I don't want to read two pages with statistics and bureaucratic stuff. Find people who are interesting and tell the story through them.' ''
Multiple drafts followed. On the Sunday before the paper was due, Mr. Lyons showed up at her dormitory to read the final draft. In the end, he gave her paper the highest possible grade, and submitted it for a prize.
''I always felt like Mr. Lyons believed in me more than I did myself,'' Ms. Stephens said.
For all his loquaciousness, one thing Mr. Lyons is reticent about is the constant pain he lives with, with complications from a ruptured disk in his spine, as well as continuing problems with his legs.
As the junior varsity football coach years ago, he would race up and down the sidelines on his crutches. Eleven years ago, reluctantly, he began to use a wheelchair to get around campus, although he still walks with crutches as much as possible.
What is there to complain about, Mr. Lyons asked, adding: ''You only walk and run on your legs. You live with your mind.''
He was talking as he revisited his old classroom, with its large windows overlooking the leafy campus, and its empty desks that will be occupied by new students, and a different teacher, next fall. ''Sometimes you have a crummy night, and you wake up and you don't feel too good,'' he said. ''But you have to perform.''
''The worst thing a teacher can be is dull,'' he continued. ''I talk too much, probably. I get all pumped up, and by five past eight I'm flying. You sort of forget some of the aches and pains.''



James Shaley said...

Tom was a true gentleman in every way. He gave so much.

Rest in peace, Tom.

Ari Herzog said...

Seeing this now. Thanks for sharing. I liked Tom, got to know him over the years -- and he did tell me about having polio.