Thomas T. Lyons, 78; made history come alive at Phillips Academy
The history classes Thomas T. Lyons taught at Phillips Academy in Andover were always challenging, ever popular, and never sedate.
“The worst thing a teacher can be is dull,” he told The New York Times in 1999, when he retired.
There was little chance any student would have described his demeanor that way.
Because of a bout with polio in the 1950s, he used crutches, and didn’t hesitate to bang them on desks or walls to make a point.
“He would be writing up there furiously with chalk dust all over the place, and he could write faster than he could talk,” said Dr. Charles van der Horst, a former student who now teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “It’s a cliché, but he was making history come alive.”
Mr. Lyons, who spent 36 years at Phillips Academy as a teacher, coach, and adviser to the student newspaper, The Phillipian, died of bladder cancer Oct. 11 in his Newburyport home. He was 78.
In his first years at Phillips Academy, Mr. Lyons helped pioneer a new approach to history courses by having students study US Supreme Court cases and original historic documents, rather than rely solely on textbooks.
“We listened to debates, the great cases that established the Supreme Court law, and studied the beginning years of the country,” van der Horst said. “He brought it all to life in his lively, loud way.”
Mr. Lyons, who at times used a wheelchair to cross the campus, “was brilliant and inspiring, not only in his history classroom but in The Phillipian office as well,” Nina Scott, an English instructor who is now adviser to the newspaper, wrote in a letter to the paper’s editor after Mr. Lyons died.
During his teaching career, Mr. Lyons wrote or co-wrote several history books, and “he had a real thirst for learning, right until the end,” said his wife, Eleanor.
Mr. Lyons, she added, often could be found in the middle of two or three books at a time.
“He read ferociously,” she said. “He was very happy to have a day to clear his mind for new ideas.”
Born in Reading, Mr. Lyons was a son of Margaret Wade Tolman, who died when he was a teenager, and Louis M. Lyons, a former Globe reporter and longtime commentator on WGBH TV and radio.
At high school in Reading, Mr. Lyons was the football team’s quarterback when he met Eleanor Coneeney, a cheerleader, his junior year.
His time on the football field and baseball diamond was cut short when, at 20, he contracted polio during his junior year at Brown University.
After being hospitalized for nine months, he decided to transfer to Harvard College so he could be cared for easier by his father, who lived in Cambridge.
“He always was the kind of person who just accepted things and moved forward,” his wife said.
During his hospital stay, she said, Mr. Lyons saw many adults and children who had polio and “felt so bad for the children, since they would never know how to play sports, and he was lucky he had the chance to play football, baseball, or basketball growing up.”
After missing a year of school, Mr. Lyons graduated from Harvard in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in history and stayed to receive a master’s in teaching the following year.
Mr. Lyons married Eleanor in 1958 and began his first teaching job at Mount Hermon School in Gill, where he taught, coached, and ran a dormitory.
“He believed that being part of a team sport is an incredibly important extension of the classroom,” said their oldest son, John of Groton, who also became a teacher. “He believed very powerfully in the importance of repetitive drill, and to appreciate not just the destination, but the process.”
Mr. Lyons spent five years at Mount Hermon before joining the faculty at Phillips Academy, where he chaired the history department and coached football.
His dedication brought fellowships and numerous awards, including recognition from Harvard and the New England History Teachers Association.
When he wasn’t teaching or writing books, Mr. Lyons was with his family at home, where he spent a great deal of time gardening, sliding around on a piece of cardboard to tend to his plants.
“He had a garden the size of a tennis court,” John said. “It was a passion of his to have these projects, to see things grow. He was always involved in something.”
When Mr. Lyons retired in 1999 at 65, The New York Times featured him in an article and reported that George W. Bush, who would soon run for president, had been one of his students. Bush had said in a TV interview that Mr. Lyons “was probably the most influential teacher on me,” the Times reported.
The following year, Mr. Lyons returned briefly to teach a course on the US Supreme Court and the Constitution. He and his wife then moved to Newburyport, but for him, retirement was not synonymous with resting.
Mr. Lyons served on the city’s Disabilities Commission and Council on Aging, and was a founder of the Newburyport Lifelong Learning Lyceum. In 2003, he was inducted into the Reading High Athletic Hall of Fame and was invited to serve on the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
After Mr. Lyons was diagnosed with cancer, “despite two rounds of chemotherapy and one dose of radiation, he just did not let it get to him. That’s the way he was,” his wife said.
“We cherished the year that we had, and were blessed to have that year,” she said. “We enjoyed our friends, our activities. We appreciated every day.”
In addition to his wife, Eleanor, and son John, Mr. Lyons leaves a daughter, Kathleen Fanikos of Andover; two other sons, David of Southborough and Joseph of Deerfield; a brother, John of Mount Airy, Md.; two sisters, Margaret Ford of Bethel, Conn., and Sheila King of Cambridge; and 11 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 1 in the Cochran Chapel at Phillips Academy.
In her letter to the editor of The Phillipian, Nina Scott wrote that Mr. Lyons “was a scholar, a master teacher and a force of nature. When he set his sights on you, and whirred over to you in his wheelchair, and gave you that grin, and told you what someday you should do, you felt far more clever than you’d been five minutes before.”