Curiously, the ministry of a small town newspaper to its readers is not so very unlike the ministry of a small, like-minded congregation united in need. Bear with me on this. In each case, the goal is a broad and profound devotion to and understanding of the members’ lives and their relationships, earthly or transcendent. When Don Lyons was unwisely separated from his ministry of the Grace Episcopal Church, he began a new, but to him unexpectedly familiar, role at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. From his pastoral role to his newspaper job, Don brought a keen and sympathetic understanding of his neighbors and colleagues, of their travails and peculiarities.
Don was not a newspaper reporter, the name once given to an admired, even hallowed, occupation, in the mid-1980s when he came to us. He certainly might have been, but he took a job as an advertising salesman for The Times, and he was a good one. Instinctively, he knew that he was required to be a guide and advocate for his customers, to learn what their needs were and how those needs might be economically and successfully fulfilled. Advertisers found in Don a scrupulous, dependable adviser and friend, and they trusted him.
Often, the death of a great salesman will be celebrated at the fringe of the limelight by the company’s chief financial officer and the ambitious youth of the sales staff. For me and for other Times folk, Don will be celebrated for his warm, amused, encouraging but always light touch, and his fellowship. A good and decent man, he went about his business life as he had his ecclesiastical life, not merely working with his colleagues and customers but partnering with each of us.
Don liked baseball, and he liked children. He called balls and strikes for Little Leaguers, and sometimes softball games. Oh, and I’m afraid I spoke too soon earlier when I said Don was not a reporter. He was that too, reporting on games of all sports, even games he had called, an unforgivable lapse of course, but only in the tortured world of the nitpickers. “Don’t be silly,” he said, “they’re just little kids.” Besides, Don was incapable of bias, except perhaps toward cruelty, stupidity, callousness, and pretension. Sometimes he wrote short news stories when without his help, we couldn’t have gotten to something he knew was important and should not be left uncovered. And he proofread and copyedited when it was needed. He was a learned, meticulous, and playful writer, never an online guy slavering for clicks and likes.
Don liked rocks, and he liked to make something of them. It was in him to make something new and useful out of something unremarkable. He built stone walls at the house where he and the merry Joanie lived, improving the soil, imposing some order, guarding against the weedy injustice of a life or a thing uncared for.
He was an actor and a debater. In him, the two merged. In daily office life he was a storyteller, and on stage he invaded, never clumsily or abruptly, the parts he played, as he did the lives of those who might benefit from an encouraging word.
Right and wrong mattered hugely to him, and he often chose to play the villain, the most ornery or least admirable of the characters — the least like himself — in a production. He liked meaningful parts that touched on difficult subjects, for instance “The Laramie Project” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A particularly resonant example was the staging of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” at the Katharine Cornell Theater. Don played old Nat Moyer, a cross, generally disappointed, opinionated socialist Jew alongside his friend Jamie Harris as Midge Carter, a Black super in a New York apartment building where one tenant is trying to force him to retire. They cross paths daily in a park, spin yarns, and rehearse their grievances over aging, their children, the good old days, and remembered sweethearts. Don inhabited convincingly the characters he played as he had done throughout his life as the priest, the umpire, the advertising salesman, the friend, and the newspaper colleague over nearly three decades. He knew us all.
Doug Cabral is the former owner and editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times.