The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: The Making of a Preacher

1960-62 -- Attends Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg.

1962-64 -- Studies at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.

1964 -- Enters the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

St. Petersburg Times
By Mike Wilson

Lyons graduated from Lincoln High in June 1960 and enrolled in all-black Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg the following September. Nixon and Kennedy were about to debate on TV; the Pirates and the Yankees were headed to the World Series; and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made the papers almost every day.

Gibbs, which had 600 students and 37 teachers, was controversial because it was created after the Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of public schools. "We saw this as just another stronghold of segregation," said C. Bette Wimbish, who was active in civil rights work at the time.

But for black students who couldn't afford a four-year college, Gibbs was a good alternative. The tuition was $40 a semester.

Lyons, who lived with an aunt and uncle on 14th Avenue S, was a favorite among his teachers, just as he had been in high school. Gibbs' former dean, Cecil B. Keene Sr., called him "one of my rewards in education."

At the beginning of Lyons' second semester, the Times featured him as Gibbs' "Student of the Week."

"Henry Lyons has a quick, alert, and keen, inquiring mind. He wants to know and delights in learning," the Rev. William A. Smith, pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, was quoted as saying. "(He is) an extremely sincere student of religion and . . . quite talented."

On Sundays, Lyons served as Smith's assistant at First Institutional. But when the Times reporter asked Lyons about a career in the ministry, the 18-year-old said he was still thinking about that "all-important issue."

By the time Lyons finished school at Gibbs, he was no longer wavering. Booker Lyons' grandson had grown up to be a preacher. Lyons "was proud of having made him proud," friend Gloria Duncan said.

When Smith took a leave of absence from First Baptist Institutional that summer, Lyons filled in.

From the Aug. 22, 1962, St. Petersburg Times:

Preacher, 20,
Wins Crowds
With Sermons

Hard-hitting sermons by the son of a Gainesville, Fla.,
tile setter have been literally "packing 'em in" this summer at First Baptist Institutional Church, . . .

In fact, Lyons was the son of a scamp, not a tile setter, but that wasn't something he wanted the world to know.

Two weeks after that article appeared, Lyons enrolled in Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. He went to classes during the day, waited tables at night and spent many Sundays preaching at Mount Bethel Baptist Church. His hard work and Christian commitment must have pleased his grandfather, whom he saw on his frequent visits home.

But during this time another side of Lyons began to emerge, one echoing the personality of his wayward father. Like Gene Lyons, Henry had a weakness for women.

When he was at Bethune-Cookman, Lyons often drove to Leesburg to visit Eartha Watson, a nursing student he had known since they were children in Gainesville. Watson became pregnant during Christmas break the year she was a freshman and Lyons was a junior. Watson, of Daytona Beach, said she would have married Lyons but he wasn't interested.

Treva Carter was born on Oct. 14, 1963. Lyons gave Watson a letter acknowledging he was the father, Watson said, but the hospital wouldn't put his name on the birth certificate because the letter wasn't notarized.

Ever the responsible one, Booker T. Lyons provided for Henry's baby just as he had done for Gene's. He and his second wife, Minnie, paid for Watson's prenatal care and paid the hospital bill when Treva came. They later watched the baby while Watson worked nights.

Lyons saw Treva often because she spent so much time at his grandparents' house.

"They formed a very, very close relationship," Watson said.

Lyons supported the child adequately at first. But soon his checks -- usually $30 or $40 -- stopped coming, Watson said. She said she wrote him "terrible letters" demanding support. Lyons finally agreed to pay.

Treva Carter had only sporadic contact with her father after her first birthday. Lyons moved to Atlanta in the autumn of 1964 and saw her only on visits home. Later, Watson married, and Lyons saw Treva even less. Support was not an issue because Watson's husband wanted to raise Treva as his own.

Treva Carter Langley, an assistant school principal who lives in Eustis, is married and has a daughter -- Lyons' granddaughter. Watson said Lyons visited his daughter and grandchild last year. She is struck by the resemblance between Lyons and Treva.

"If you've seen him, you've seen her," she said. "I just hope she doesn't have the kind of blood he has."

Lyons entered the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta in the autumn of 1964. ITC comprises several schools of religion. Lyons got his master's at the Baptist-affiliated Morehouse School of Religion, but he studied alongside members of other African-American denominations.

Attending ITC, the largest black theological seminary in the world, was heady stuff for the grandson of a tile setter. The ITC executive committee included Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays and the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., and the faculty boasted some of the finest minds in black Christendom. Along with Spelman, Morehouse College, Morris Brown and other colleges, ITC was at the center of black intellectual life in America.

Lyons once said he knew as a sophomore that he would one day become president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the historic assembly of black Baptist churches.

"I received my absolute confirmation from God himself that I was to be president," Lyons told Ebony magazine in 1995. "He didn't necessarily say president. He let me know I was to lead the organization."

Lyons' fellow students remember him as an extrovert, quick to make friends and slow to criticize.

"I never heard him really get down on another student. And many of us were guilty of doing that. Lyons would say, 'Oh, give the brother another chance,' " said the Rev. George L. Champion, now a pastor in Orlando.

Students at ITC learned Old Testament history and literature, church history, missionary, biography, theology and church piety, which they ruefully called "church politics."

And, of course, they learned to preach. Lyons had grown up listening to so-called cornbread preachers, or whoopers. These men punctuated their sermons with throaty, wordless cries, so overcome by the spirit they could do nothing but wail.

Lyons' homiletics teacher -- his professor of preaching -- was an exacting, erudite man named Isaac R. Clark. He didn't have anything against showmanship, but he expected his students to do more than holler and wave their arms.

"He told Lyons, 'You don't have to lose your whoop to be an effective preacher. But for God's sake, say something before you whoop,' " said Champion, who graduated with Lyons' ITC class.

Lyons learned the lesson well. Watch him preach and you begin to understand why the National Baptists made him their president.

Polite and formal in one-on-one encounters, Lyons is often folksy in the pulpit. Jesus loves everyone, he once said: "Doesn't matter whether you're black, whether you're white, whether you're blue, green or polkie-dot."

In the same sermon, he quoted his grandmother, Penny Lyons, on the subject of salvation: "She said, 'Every tub got to sit on its own bottom . . . You got to accept Jesus for yourself.' Can I get a witness?"

His sermons build slowly. Always he speaks with urgency -- as if his voice were leaning forward -- but he never looks tense or self-conscious. Lyons thinks nothing of pausing to towel off his face, finger his glasses, sip some water. "Help me, Holy Ghost," he says, catching his breath. He'll get going again when he's ready.

Lyons preaches from the word, as the Baptists say: He takes stories from the Bible and makes them relevant. Like David, we can overcome. Like Jacob, we are deceivers. Like Daniel, we need faith. The message is clear, simple, useful.

Soon he slides from bass to tenor and puts gravel in his voice. "A-man," he shouts. He keeps his cadence by adding syllables to words: Witness-uh. Israel-uh. His phrases become musical, then become music: now he is singing, "Ain't he all right-uh? Ain't he all right-uh?" The organist pounds out chords between phrases and the people call out, "Yes, preacher!"

His sermons always end the same way: Lyons whoops, the men beat their hands together and the women reach up as if to grasp God.

"He understands how spirit works in the lives of human beings," Lyons' friend Marvin Davies said. "When he gets into prison, if he goes to prison, he'll have everybody shouting every morning."

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