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    Ervin Lyon, at 76; was MIT scientist, pilot, car dealer

    Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Ervin “Bud’’ F. Lyon, a plain-spoken Texas native who liked handling rattlesnakes and flying helicopters, took the fortune he made cofounding American Power Conversion Corp. and opened luxury car dealerships in New England.

    A collector himself who prized Porsches, Dr. Lyon launched BMW of Peabody in the 1990s and made it clear to his business partners he wasn’t going to be poking around the showroom.

    “I’m retired. Call me if you need me. I’ll show up every once and a while with a wheelbarrow and you can fill it with cash,’’ he said, according to one partner, Warren Waugh.


    Dr. Lyon, whose Lyon-Waugh Auto Group grew to seven dealerships, died Feb. 19 in his Kensington, N.H., home of kidney failure after several years of failing health. He was 76 and also had a home in Bonita Springs, Fla.

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    “He always had a funny line. He’d be sitting there quietly and he’d pop out these funny things,’’ said his wife, the former Thelma Yeager. They met in high school in San Antonio and were married 57 years.

    Dr. Lyon received his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, where he and his wife ran the college’s Aggieland Inn in College Station, Texas. He graduated from MIT in 1959 with a master’s in electrical engineering and went to work for the university’s Lincoln Laboratory.

    In 1966, he earned his doctorate from MIT and spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of Rome. He also worked at MIT’s Center for Space Research.

    At a memorial service Tuesday in United Church of Christ in North Hampton, N.H., Dr. Lyon was remembered as brilliant and unpretentious, someone whose tastes ran more toward meatball subs with jalapenos and sardines with crackers, rather than champagne and caviar.


    Waugh recalled eavesdropping one day while Dr. Lyon negotiated the purchase of a helicopter. Then his wife called and Dr. Lyon made no mention of the big purchase before hanging up.

    “It’s a good day,’’ he told Waugh after finishing the call. “A new helicopter and we’re having chicken thighs tonight.’’

    In a farewell letter, which was read at his memorial service, Dr. Lyon downplayed his role in founding American Power Conversion in 1981 with fellow Lincoln Lab electrical power engineers Neil Rasmussen and Emanuel Landsman. The company makes uninterruptible power supply products for computers and other electronics. Dr. Lyon was president and chairman of the board until 1985.

    “We hit on a successful formula by accident,’’ Dr. Lyon wrote. “I more or less stood around while they did all the hard work.’’

    The Rhode Island-based company went public in 1988 and grew to 6,000 employees with more than $2 billion in annual sales. Schneider Electric bought American Power Conversion in 2007.


    “He was the consummate gentleman. It was a pleasure to work with him,’’ said Rasmussen, who now serves as the company’s chief innovation officer.

    Rasmussen credited Dr. Lyon with inspiring his partners to have the courage to leave Lincoln Lab and start the company. Later, Dr. Lyon surrendered the helm at American Power Conversion and returned to Lincoln Lab, where he worked until he retired in 1993.

    “He had the foresight to understand the next part of our journey was about sales and marketing,’’ Rasmussen recalled.

    When Dr. Lyon’s health began to fail, his wife urged him to write an autobiography. The result was his 2010 self-published book, “Thoughts from Chairman Bud.’’

    On the cover, he holds a flag-waving teddy bear. His introduction warns that “if you come to this book expecting a series of essays bursting with the consequences of deep or penetrating thought, you would likely be disappointed.’’

    The 160-page book of ruminations includes chapters titled, “Studebaker’s Contribution to Vehicle Dynamics,’’ “Does a Company Have a Soul?,’’ and “Why Do Old People Get Fat?’’

    In “My Love of Porsche,’’ Dr. Lyon offered a harrowing account of his crash on an entrance ramp to Route 128 near Lexington. He rolled the speeding sports car and somehow managed to emerge with only a few bruises.

    “I’ll always remember the question I was asked the next day as the distorted, dented and abused Porsche sat forlornly in the dealer’s lot,’’ he wrote. “ ‘How many times did it roll?’ My reply was: ‘I don’t know; I had my eyes closed!’ ’’

    Dr. Lyon grew up in San Antonio, where he made extra money capturing and selling rattlesnakes to the local zoo.

    He was also a fine arts photographer who began studying photography as a boy. He eventually built his own studio with a darkroom over his garage in Lexington. When digital photography took over, his family said, Dr. Lyons liked to joke that the darkroom sink was for his new venture as an embalmer.

    Writing about photography, he said, “It doesn’t count for didley-squat what your family says or what the so-called experts think about your work. What matters is your own emotional response to the image.’’

    He was a member of the Army ROTC program at Texas A&M and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant with the Army Signal Corps. He finished active duty in the 1960s after receiving his master’s from MIT.

    He honed his love of flying at Hanscom Field, where he qualified for a pilot’s license.

    One highlight of his life, he wrote, was achieving an instrument rating as a pilot.

    “Flying that helicopter was the most fun I ever had outside of the bedroom,’’ he said in his farewell letter, which was read by the Rev. Judy Brain. The church erupted in laughter.

    In addition to his wife, Dr. Lyon leaves a son, Russell, of Dover, N.H.; a daughter, Kathleen Lyon-Pingree, of Bow, N.H.; a sister, Kathleen Bearden; a granddaughter; and two grandsons.

    Burial was to be in Kensington Cemetery in New Hampshire.

    Dr. Lyon requested that his farewell to mourners close with an instrumental of the Andrea Bocelli hit “Time to Say Goodbye,’’ and some advice: “Stay well. Laugh often and have many excellent adventures.’’

    J.M. Lawrence can be reached at