The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: The Deacon's Grandson

Jan. 17, 1942 -- Born in Gainesville.

1960 -- Graduates from Lincoln High School in Gainesville.

St. Petersburg Times
By Mike Wilson

Henry James Lyons was conceived in a ditch, or at least that's what he told an old girlfriend. When he was a boy, Gene showed him the ditch. Lyons never forgave him for that.

"He hated his father. Hated him," Ola Mae Daniels said.

Lyons was born Jan. 17, 1942, in Gainesville. His mother, Victoria McCray, wanted to raise him -- "He was the greatest baby," she said -- but even the greatest baby was too much work for the 17-year-old high school girl, who never married Lyons' father.

Lyons was taken in by Gene's parents, who lived in a two-bedroom, wood-frame house in the northeast section of the city. His grandmother, Penny, was small, soft-spoken and almost universally loved. She played piano at Johnson Chapel Baptist Church, where Booker was a deacon.

"You've heard the saying, 'A place for everything and everything in its place'? That's the kind of home she kept," said Lyons' longtime friend Eartha Watson.

As a child, Lyons enjoyed listening to the Lone Ranger and Jack Benny, but his grandmother soon took away the radio and began reading him Bible stories instead. He loved the story of David and Goliath and found strength in it when a schoolyard bully mugged him for his lunch.

"I said, 'Negro, you can (try to) take my lunch today if you want, but (first) you and me are going to fight,' " he told the National Baptist Convention last year. "I actually found the Bible more exciting than radio."

Booker Lyons' principles served him well as a deacon, but they made life hard for his grandson. Lyons once described Booker as "a laborer who got up every morning and went to work. And he imparted that work ethic in me. Constantly. Even if I didn't want it. Like a dose of castor oil." Lyons was grateful, but mostly in hindsight.

Having failed to make a pious man of Gene, Booker T. Lyons was determined to make one of Henry. Lyons had no choice but to attend Sunday school and sing in the choir (friends say he had a fine voice). As a teenager, he said, he "labored with a dozen or so others in the hot Florida sun" to build a new church building half a block from his house. His grandfather's name is etched in the cornerstone.

Some say Lyons became a minister because it was in his nature to preach the word. Others believe he did it partly because Booker Lyons wanted him to. Rearing Henry gave Booker a second chance at fatherhood, and a second chance to make a man from his own rib.

"I always felt Henry was given too much responsibility too soon because he was a young, handsome man that people put on a pedestal. It was sad in a way because it wasn't allowing him to be himself," family friend Gloria Duncan said.

"He was the apple of his grandfather's eye. His grandfather was one of those people who helped put him on a pedestal."

Gene Lyons wasn't so reverent. Once, Lyons asked his father to come to Johnson Chapel to hear him preach. Gene grudgingly agreed. He parked himself in the back pew and left the moment Lyons finished, said Eartha Watson, who was there.

Gene's role as father was to offer alternatives to whatever Henry was learning in church. According to Daniels, he once taught Lyons how to shoot dice.

He also set an example as a Lothario. Women liked Gene's clever patter, his dapper dress, his meticulously combed hair. (According to his obituary, he fathered five children during his lifetime.) One love interest was Minnie Lamb of Ocala. Gene was working as a hotel bellman and living in a rooming house when they met. Lamb had everything Gene was looking for: a nice personality, a house of her own and something in her bank account.

"He was a status seeker. A fast-talker who always had a line," said Carmen Smith, Lamb's daughter. She said the two were married but there are no records to confirm it. Gene Lyons' patter eventually grew tiresome and Minnie Lamb ran him out of the house.

For Gene, moving in with Minnie Lamb was a shortcut to a comfortable life. Years later, Henry Lyons would imitate this behavior by using his own quick tongue to get the things he wanted.

Henry Lyons' father was only 42 when he died in 1967. He had wandered to Boca Raton, where he was working as a hotel porter. He woke up one morning with what he thought was gas and was dead of a heart attack within four hours.

The death certificate said his wife was someone named Emma Lyons, but it is not clear who she was or whether they were actually married.

"With Gene," Watson said, "who knows?"

Lyons attended Gainesville's all-black Lincoln High beginning in the seventh grade. The school was probably the most important institution in black life after the church. Along with English and math, the staff stressed discipline and self-respect.

"Lincoln High School was like the military. It would make a woman out of you and it would make a man out of you," said Lyons' friend Lester Jackson.

In interviews, Lyons' friends and teachers described him as good-natured, personable, polite, decent. Booker's grandson. He was also a great talker; family friend Gloria Duncan felt "he would get to the top . . . just because he has a way with words."

Others believed he would get to the top because of raw determination. Lyons was not going to be satisfied with the kind of humble life his grandfather lived. He wanted to get an education, go places, see things.

"Lyons is a man bent on achievement," said his friend Marvin Davies, who has known Lyons for more than 40 years.

When Lyons was in the seventh grade, he joined a group dedicated to polishing young men. Members of the Esquire Club learned to tie a Windsor knot, comb their hair and pick out clothes. John Dukes Jr., the teacher who founded the club, has kept in touch with Lyons over the years.

"Each time that I have seen him, I'll be very frank with you, I'm very proud of the way he matches his clothes," said Dukes, now assistant superintendent of the Alachua County school system.

Dressing well was only part of the Esquire experience. Members also learned to treat women kindly. That meant opening doors for them, letting them go first in the lunch line, speaking courteously to them.

And they appreciated it. Lyons' high school buddies called him "Sugar Foot" because the girls were sweet on him.

"He was a charmer," said the Rev. Ruben S. Williams, a high school friend.

But as an adult his behavior toward women has been less than chivalrous. His first wife says he beat her with a belt. His birth mother hasn't seen him in 25 years. A woman he met at a revival says he slept with her, slugged her and paid her off with church money when she threatened to talk.

These reports trouble Dukes, the founder of the Esquire Club.

"I hope it won't be interpreted as a negative outcome of what we did," he said.

Lyons grew up during segregation and endured all the indignities that came with it. Black people in Gainesville could enter Louis' hamburger joint only through the back door and couldn't go into the movie theater at all. The only "new" textbooks that students at Lincoln High School ever received were the ones the white schools discarded, teacher Dukes said.

But Lyons didn't dwell on such things. When he was in his teens, he and some of his friends had after-school jobs busing tables in a dining hall on the University of Florida campus. The teenagers earned money and got to know the college students, who always seemed happy to see them.

"We fit right in," Lester Jackson said.

Maybe so, but Lyons and his friends knew they would never attend the university because it was segregated. And though the white college students treated them well, the two groups did not mix when meals were finished.

Lyons would experience white society's indifference to black people throughout his life. Like the narrator in Ralph Ellison's classic novel, he was an invisible man, a leader of invisible people. When he was elected president of the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans in 1994, the St. Petersburg Times, his hometown paper, was not there. Lyons received more attention after that, but few in the media knew what he did as president of the NBC.

But then, Lyons didn't want too much press. Being invisible enabled him to lead a secret life in his own hometown. When Henry Lyons and convention employee Bernice Edwards bought a house in Tierra Verde, they introduced themselves to their white neighbors as Henry and B.

Nobody knew Lyons was a religious leader and an acquaintance of Bill Clinton, or that Edwards was not his wife.

On July 6, 1997, Lyons' wife, Deborah, set fire to the $700,000 house because she believed Lyons and Edwards were having an affair. Suddenly Lyons became visible: He returned from Nigeria to find a battalion of news people waiting for him at the airport. The next day, he complained that the media were after him because he was a black man with money.

But Lyons' anger was misguided. The insult was not in the coverage he was now getting -- when your wife sets fire to your mansion, it's news. The insult was that the press had not paid him much attention before.

Still, Lyons' cry of racism served its purpose: For some, it changed the subject from what he had done to what had been done to him. So he kept it up, using race as a flash grenade to confuse and distract.

An incident involving the Anti-Defamation League is the best example. In 1996, the ADL's leaders gave Lyons more than $200,000 to distribute to burned black churches. When they learned he had pocketed all but $30,000, stiffing his own people, they were outraged and said so.

Lyons' response? He implied that he was being singled out because he was black.

This strategy didn't always work. "The only thing that had to do with black and white was the paper trail that he made -- the white paper and the black ink they used on it," said the Rev. Anderson Clark, a former associate minister at Lyons' church. The authorities weren't impressed, either: Stealing the ADL money is one of the criminal charges against Lyons.

But the cries of racism received enough amens in the NBC to help Lyons keep his job as president.

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