Tom Lyons, Former Instructor, Phillipian Advisor, Passes Away

Tom Lyons, Instructor in History from 1963 to 1999, passed away last Thursday at the age of 78 after a battle with cancer, according to a press release on the Andover website. Lyons, an influential member of the faculty for 36 years and an Andover parent and grandparent, was instrumental in structuring the American history curriculum to value the perspectives of African-Americans and other minorities. In addition to American history, Lyons taught a number of popular Senior electives. His enthusiasm in the classroom made his teaching style incredibly effective, according to Vic Henningsen ’69, Instructor in History. “[In his class] you knew you were in the hands of somebody who cared passionately about what he was doing and what you were doing,” said Henningsen. “[Lyons] was legendary [in the department] for the extent of the personal interest that he took in his students and the pains that he went to in order to help those people out. He went above and beyond, certainly above and beyond the expectation of the Andover faculty in those days,” Henningsen continued. Henningsen enjoyed working with Lyons and thought of him as a mentor. “That doesn’t mean that we agreed all the time. We had some titanic arguments, but those were also fun. He enjoyed the debate and of course his most popular course… was on constitutional law, which is all about argument,” said Henningsen. Students in Lyons’s constitutional law course would research the views of sitting Supreme Court justices and set up a mock trial for a case that was actually under the court’s review for that year. The students would reach their own verdict before the Supreme Court proceedings were over, according to Henningsen In addition to his roles on Andover’s campus, Lyons had a passion for social justice and was particularly invested in the social movements of the 1960s, according to Christopher Gurry ’66, Instructor in History and a former student of Lyons. “[Lyons] was a very liberal guy, and [in 1966] he gave a series of lectures about civil rights and what the government needed to do to implement civil rights legislation in ’64 and ’65, and I remember some contentious moments with some very conservative southern students trying to push back at him. It was an enlightening encounter, one that stuck with me for the forcefulness of his conviction and his argument,” said Gurry. Henningsen said, “He was primarily responsible for getting the department… to take the experiences of minority groups, particularly African-Americans, seriously as an aspect of the study of American history, to see those groups as fundamental to the shaping of the American story and not simply as kind of Constitutional problems to be solved.” Lyons’s role on campus extended far beyond the classroom. He interacted with Andover students as a coach, as a house counselor and as faculty advisor to The Phillipian, according to a press release on the Andover website. As a coach, Lyons inspired his athletes and incorporated humor into practices. During his time at Andover, Gurry was the quarterback of the junior varsity football team, which Lyons coached. “We had a quarterback power sweep [play], and I was the quarterback, and he changed the name because he said, ‘I can’t call it the power sweep, Gurry, if you’re running it,’” said Gurry. “Lyons’s weekly critiques of the content and layout of The Phillipian still stand out in my memory for their intelligence, wit and candor and perhaps more important for his desire to treat us–his students–as equals and as the future leaders of journalism–whether that was even remotely plausible or not,” wrote William Cohan ’77, former Business Manager of The Phillipian, in an e-mail to The Phillipian. Lyons also worked as a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College and Stanford University. At Dartmouth, he taught the college’s first course on African-American history, according to Henningsen. “It says something about Tom and something about Dartmouth that it was Tom who did that,” said Henningsen. Lyons spent most of his life with polio after he contracted the disease during his sophomore year of college. He walked with two crutches and in the late 1990s used a wheelchair to get around, according to Gurry. “One of [Lyons’s] idols was FDR, who had polio. He really modeled himself in the way he moved on his crutches, and he was reluctant to go into a wheelchair… He always wanted to be upright and as mobile as he could be,” said Gurry. Henningsen said, “[Lyons’s disability] alone was an inspiration to students and to his colleagues–the sense that, well, I’m encountering difficulties in my life and I feel terrible about them, but you know if Lyons can do all this given the challenges that he’s faced, surely I can deal with whatever’s bothering me.” Before contracting polio, Lyons was known for his athletic ability. He was inducted into the Reading Memorial High School Athletic Hall of Fame for football and played football at Brown University until his sophomore year, according to Gurry. Lyons took a leave of absence from Brown after being diagnosed with polio. He returned to his studies after his recovery and graduated from Harvard University in 1957, according to Gurry. Lyons raised four children in Andover with his wife, Eleanor. All four children and two grandchildren attended Andover, according to the press release. Lyons’ three sons are now history teachers. “That says a lot about the respect they had for their father,” said Gurry.