Don Lyons died on August 24, 2021, at the age of 94, after suffering with kidney disease. Even with only his wife Joni, his nurse Fiona, and the cat as audience, Don continued singing to the very end. As Joni said, “Don was always a class act — in living and in dying.”
Don was born in Greenfield on July 15, 1927, and grew up in Floral Park, N.Y. His school activities were highlighted by music and baseball.
While studying at Bowdoin College in Maine, he was able to celebrate his lifelong delight in music by becoming a member of the Meddiebempsters, an a capella double quartet that toured nationally and overseas. He eventually directed the group.
Don postponed the completion of his studies by joining the U.S. Marines just at the end of WWII. After being stationed in China for the duration of his service, he returned to Bowdoin, where he received his bachelor’s degree.
Don married Helen Herrick, and they became the parents of Mark and Laurie. Helen died after the birth of their second child. Don and Hope Dixon were married a year later, and welcomed children Christopher, Naomi, and Beth.
Receiving his master’s at the Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, the newly ordained Rev. Don Lyons’s initial parish was in New Hampshire. Then, in 1958, he became canon of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Following that, he became archdeacon of the Diocese of New Hampshire. He’d been recognized for his intelligence, deep faith, and his ability to lead. But his heart had always been much closer to the daily activities of ministry, and he wanted to return to parish life.
Don and his family moved to the Vineyard in 1966. He would serve for nearly two decades as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven, providing a gentle and forward-thinking leadership. The ’60s were a decade of transformation and manifestation everywhere. As an activist, Don was deeply involved in the civil rights and peace movements. At Grace Church, Don was a proponent for change, and didn’t hesitate to take on things that might challenge “the way it’s always been.”
His innovations included writing, producing, and directing biblical musicals for the 35 children in the church school. Their active participation brought their teachings alive in a way that no other art form can. So, it was an easy decision for Don to welcome the newly established Island Theatre Workshop’s Children’s Theatre, directed by Mary Payne, to sing, dance, orate, and create in the Grace Church Hall, beginning in the summer of 1968. The Lyons children were an integral part of that troupe for years, showcasing their talents and beautiful voices. Not only was Don a kind and compassionate pastor, but along with that lovely singing voice, he was gifted with being a natural actor and quick study — “born to tread the boards.” From Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan, he provided decades of entertainment to Vineyard audiences. He played so many roles that a trip to the Gazette archives would be necessary to list them all. From the deepest dramas to the lilting vitality of musical comedies, Don was always a gleeful addition to any ensemble, professional and pitch-perfect on stage, and a wonderful support to all the cast and crew in the wings.
After his decades as a church leader, he retired and became the sports editor for The MV Times, no surprise as he’d been a Little League umpire for many years. Don wrote for the Times until he retired at 85.
In 1991, Don married Joni Merry. For the past three decades, their warmth and joy in each other have been palpable and infectious. How people have delighted in their casual playfulness and compatible senses of humor.
Don’s desire to create something new prompted him to make a garden on their property in West Tisbury. What he found was that there was already a “garden” — of enormous rocks. He created a fulcrum and lever to remove them nearly single-handedly. Finding himself with a huge rock collection, his curiosity provoked him to consider what he might do with this bounty. He fashioned a wooden sled to transport the rocks, and set about building stone walls all around the property, and capped the project off by building a round stone house with a roof, just to see if he could.
As a humanitarian, he was always interested in how people lived and helped each other. That interest took him and Joni across the globe, traveling to 60 countries, mainly those not generally visited by many tourists. Anyone who knows the Island knows that our Vineyard community is a varied one. As a pastor and a friend, Don provided discreet assistance and gentle kindness to many in need. He always practiced patience, and has been a teacher to so many. Always a compassionate and caring advisor, Don worked as a support to the recovery community on the Island as well as serving on several boards of directors, including Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Island Theatre Workshop, and Camp Jabberwocky. A round window created by artist Barney Zeitz was set into the parish hall in honor of Don’s dedication and work at Grace Church.
Don was predeceased by his sister, Alice Eckhardt, and his brothers, Charlie and Eddie Lyons. He is survived by his wife, Joni Merry; his children, Mark Lyons and partner Cindy Walker of New Hampshire, and Laurie and husband Russ Redgate, and grandsons Michael and Christopher of Marstons Mills; Christopher Lyons of Florida; Naomi Lyons of Arizona; Beth Lyons of Maryland; Jennifer and husband Howie Marlin of Vineyard Haven, grandchildren Sam and Hannah, and great-grandchild Olivia Marlin; Jessica Williamson and husband Alex Czarowicz, and grandchildren Annabella, Sophia, and Thomas of Cambridge; Greg and wife Leslie Williamson of Vineyard Haven, and grandchildren Andrew and Ellie Williamson. Don is also survived by Fiona Kaweesa, his beloved and ever-present nurse from Uganda. She was assisted by the VNA Hospice of Cape and Islands.
A funeral service will be held at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury at 5 pm Wednesday, Sept. 1. Masks are mandatory.
Memorial gifts may be given to Missions and Outreach at Grace Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 1197, 34 Woodlawn Avenue, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.