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Former Inquirer sports columnist Bill Lyon dies at 81

A longtime sports columnist at The Inquirer, Mr. Lyon spent two of the last three years of his life chronicling his battles with Alzheimer’s.

Bill Lyon was a sports columnist at The Inquirer for 33 years.
Bill Lyon was a sports columnist at The Inquirer for 33 years.Read moreJONATHAN WILSON

Bill Lyon, a literate, sensitive, and affable Midwesterner who endeared himself to this cynical Northeastern city during more than three decades as a must-read Inquirer sports columnist, died Sunday at the Marple Township facility where he’d resided since 2017.

He was 81 and for the last several years had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He had been in hospice since his condition deteriorated several weeks ago.

Though he collected six Pulitzer Prize nominations and more awards than most of the athletes he wrote about in 33 years at The Inquirer, some of Mr. Lyon’s most poignant and powerful work came after his 2005 retirement.

Then, in a series of essays, this man who had covered more than 30 championship fights achingly chronicled one more: his own existential battle with Alzheimer’s, or “Al.”

» READ MORE: Bill Lyon’s fight with Alzheimer’s: He never, ever quit | Perspective

“Al is an insidious and relentless little bastard, a gutless coward who won’t come out and fight,” he wrote in 2016. “Instead, he lies in ambush in my brain, and the only way I can put a face on him is to look in the mirror.”

Those articles, the last few of which had to be dictated to colleagues when Parkinson’s left him unable to type, were among the most popular and well-received in the paper’s history. In April 2018, the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interest of the Elderly, citing their “candor and humor,” presented Mr. Lyon with its annual Spirit of CARIE Award.

“The brilliance of Bill’s writing has always been evident, but how courageous he was in his Alzheimer’s battle was remarkable,” said Fran Dunphy, the longtime Penn and Temple basketball coach.

Mr. Lyon was the rarest of figures in Philadelphia’s contentious sports scene, one almost universally admired. No Pollyanna, he wrote candidly about sports and its stars but always without giving offense.

“He could be so very funny when we sat around and discussed various players or coaches or fellow journalists,” Inquirer columnist Bob Ford said. “When he wrote, however, he chose to appeal to what Lincoln called `the better angels of our nature.’ He wanted his work to lift rather than tear down, and to bend toward optimism rather than pessimism.”

He’d never been to the East Coast until he arrived in Philadelphia in 1972, a time when big-city sports columnists possessed enormous platforms and popularity. He quickly established a voice and a following and maintained both while working well into the age of online news. While the process of filing articles on a laptop sometimes baffled him, he never lost that connection to his readers.

“He’s made me cry,” one reader wrote to The Inquirer in 2013. “He’s made me think. And for all these years, he’s made my day.”

Combining a poet’s eye with a sentimental grandfather’s heart and the ardor of a lifelong sports fan, Mr. Lyon crafted highly readable and insightful prose on tight deadlines, perhaps his greatest gift.

“One of the highlights of working as The Inquirer’s front-page editor for several years was witnessing Bill work his literary magic on deadline,” said Stan Wischnowski, The Inquirer’s executive editor and senior vice president. “Countless times, chronicling some of the most memorable games in Philly sports history, Bill turned in camera-ready, front-page columns minutes after the final horn sounded. I could never comprehend how someone could capture the moment so elegantly and efficiently like he did in the span of minutes.”

When, for example, the famously rambunctious 1993 Phillies opened the World Series in Toronto, he wrote, in 45 hectic pregame minutes, 20 inches worth of words like these:

So the Phillies showed up unshaven and unshorn, menacingly stubbled and swaggering about in their best go-ahead-try-me bluster. They remind you of street pigeons, puffing their chests, blowing out their feathers, trying to make themselves bigger, more threatening than they are.

An Illinois native who became a devoted Philadelphian, Mr. Lyon never abandoned his small-town sensibilities.

“He never had a bad word for anyone,” said Jim Lyon, his oldest son. “And I never heard him cuss. That may have been because he was so articulate.”

Hired as The Inquirer’s assistant business editor in 1972, Mr. Lyon was made a sports columnist a year later by the paper’s new executive editor, Gene Roberts.

Philadelphians quickly recognized the lanky newcomer as someone who could dissect the black-and-blue complexities of a hockey game as easily and entertainingly as explain the love an old man felt for his dog.

His words illuminated heavyweight title fights, breathtaking Masters dramas, victory parades down Broad Street, and, on many occasions, the human spirit.

In a profession often marked by back-biting and egotism, Mr. Lyon was a glaring exception.

“He was the finest human being I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” said The Inquirer’s Joe Juliano, who worked side-by-side with Mr. Lyon at Penn State football games and major golf tournaments. “I was always so impressed by his modesty and sense of humor. … He was so caring and considerate, just an absolute gentleman.”

Born in 1938 in Champaign, Ill., Mr. Lyon grew up an avid sports fan on the remote edges of that Big Ten college town.

At night, alone in his room, he listened to radio broadcasts of sporting events, read books on athletes, followed his favorite sportswriters. Tall and competitive, he played baseball, basketball, and football but soon understood his “limitations were limitless.”

In an interview in 2017, when the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association gave him its most courageous award, he recalled playing defensive end and getting knocked down in a football game against an opponent that ran the single wing.

“When I got up and the world stopped turning long enough for me to look, I had a gash on my right kneecap,” he said. “Rather than try to bandage it, I nursed it, because I wanted that to be my badge of honor. Football? Yeah, I played football.”

Mr. Lyon attended Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., where he was the class of 1956’s salutatorian. A day after graduation, he got his first full-time newspaper job, covering high school sports for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.

While attending Illinois, he worked 48-hour weeks and carried 15 credits a semester.

“You can imagine that my social life left a lot to be desired,” he recalled.

One of his News-Gazette colleagues in the sports department was Roger Ebert, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. Ebert covered Urbana High sports, while Mr. Lyon’s beat was rival Champaign High.

“On a Friday night after a game, we’d come into the office, and when we started writing we’d bounce leads off each other,” Mr. Lyon said. “It was really uplifting, very stimulating, and Roger was a hell of a writer.”

In his own biography, Ebert, who died in 2013, cited Mr. Lyon as an influence.

“Bill … gave me the best advice ever as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration. Just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story begins until you find out where it’s going.’ ”

Mr. Lyon, an English major, remained with the News-Gazette after he graduated with honors in 1961. In July 1964, in the photographers’ dark room, he met Ethel, the woman with whom he spent the next 54 years.

“He came in one day and wanted a picture developed,” Ethel Lyon, who died in 2018, recalled in 2017. “So I did that, and the next day he asked me out. I told him no. Three times. No, no, no. Finally, he came over to my house, and I said, ‘All right. I give in.’ He wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Four months later, on Nov. 6, they were married.

She accompanied him to various Midwestern newspaper jobs — in Evansville, East St. Louis, and back to Champaign — before Mr. Lyon came to Philadelphia.

They settled down and spent 43 years in a roomy split-level home in Broomall. Eventually, his younger son, John, bought the house next door, and Mr. Lyon got to watch his two grandchildren grow up at close range.

He once estimated that his job sometimes kept him away from home for as many as six months a year. His wife, he said, became the family’s “handyman, overseer, and disciplinarian.”

“We had a saying,” he remembered, “ ‘Let Ethel do it.’ I couldn’t have done it without her.”

Mr. Lyon was officially introduced to Philadelphia as The Inquirer’s new assistant business editor on Aug. 15, 1972, in an article near the bottom of Page 16. One of the young journalists he worked with in that capacity was Bill Marimow, who went on to become the paper’s executive editor.

“I met Bill on the day he joined The Inquirer,” Marimow said. “From the outset he was a great colleague, always generous with his time, his advice, and his formidable editing skills. He improved every story I wrote. Once Bill became a sports columnist, his pieces were required reading for every Philadelphia sports fan. He chronicled the triumphs and disasters of the city’s teams … with fluidity, color, and grace, and he wrote his columns with speed that awed his colleagues and competitors alike.”

Within a year, Mr. Lyon had joined Frank Dolson as one of the paper’s two lead sports columnists. Unfortunately, in those early years, there wasn’t always enough good local sports news for both.

“When I got the job, I told my family, ‘We’re going to Philadelphia. We’re going to the big time,’ ” Mr. Lyon recalled. “Well, in the summer of ’72, Steve Carlton won 27 games, and the rest of the Phillies won about four; the 76ers went 9-73, and the Flyers lost out on qualifying for the playoffs on the last shot of their last game. I told my wife, ‘Good God, what have I got us into?’ ”

His first column was on John Cappelletti, the Penn State running back who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1973. While Mr. Lyon never confirmed the speculation, it was widely believed that he helped Cappelletti write the Heisman acceptance speech that cited the running back’s cancer-stricken younger brother and became the basis for the TV movie Something for Joey.

For more than three decades, Mr. Lyon’s face was a compelling sports-section lure, usually at the top of a single-column strip that ran down the left side of Page 1.

“Bill Lyon loved Philadelphia sports fans, and he seemed to know what they were thinking," said Gene Foreman, The Inquirer’s managing editor during much of Mr. Lyon’s tenure. “Those fans loved him back because he expressed their joys and frustrations as no one else could.”

In addition to Philadelphia sports, Mr. Lyon wrote about more than two dozen Super Bowls, Masters, and Final Fours. He covered the Olympics, Indianapolis 500s, U.S. Opens, all three Triple Crown races, and championship prizefights.

He was there when the Flyers won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, when the Phillies captured the World Series in 1980, when Villanova got its first NCAA title in 1985, when the Sixers swept the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. He wrote appreciations after the deaths of Rollie Massimino, Buddy Ryan, Dallas Green, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Moses Malone, and Ed Snider.

» READ MORE: Buddy Ryan loved his brand of chaos | Bill Lyon

He authored six books, wrote so well for a couple of local TV productions that he won two Emmys, garnered those six Pulitzer nominations, nine times won Associated Press Sports Editors awards, eight times won Keystone Press Awards, and seven times was Pennsylvania’s sportswriter of the year. He also won a National Headliner Award and was inducted into both the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Sports Halls of Fame.

For much of his career, The Inquirer printed numerous editions, which meant Mr. Lyon’s columns typically had to be written before or just after the conclusion of the events he covered. To accomplish that, he developed an inviolable routine.

He read as much as he could on the subject he hoped to focus on, arrived at the arena or stadium early, staked out a press-box seat close to a restroom, talked to whatever participants were available pregame, enjoyed a meal, and then started writing. If he ever missed a deadline, no one can remember it.

Mr. Lyon was gracious to competitors and colleagues alike and was always willing to assist young journalists. One he mentored was Mike Sielski, now an Inquirer columnist himself.

» READ MORE: Bill Lyon set the standard here, as a writer, as a mentor, as a man | Mike Sielski

“There was a special grace about Bill that immediately put you at ease,” said Claire Smith, a former Inquirer columnist and now a coordinating news editor at ESPN.

He retired in 2005 and, four years after the Alzheimer’s was diagnosed in 2013, moved into the assisted-living facility, where he became a major celebrity.

Jim Lyon said his father’s wit left nurses there smiling. Mr. Lyon, he added, was in constant demand as a dinner-time guest by residents impressed with his accomplishments and humility.

It was in June 2016 that he began chronicling his battle with the disease. He was fading when he composed the last of the pieces in August 2018. He did it on the spot, dictating it to a colleague off the top of his head. Here’s how The Inquirer described that process:

“His face sometimes contorted in discomfort while he searched for an image or a memory. Seriously wounded, he was dragging himself through the disease’s jungle of damaged neurons, always pointed toward an oasis of clarity.”

» READ MORE: Bill Lyon rages against the darkness | Frank Fitzpatrick

That essay came not long after his wife had died. In it, he wrote, “My wife is gone now and I struggle with what I am supposed to do.”

Mr. Lyon loved to point out that of his thousands of columns on Philadelphia’s teams and sports heroes, many of which hang framed in bar rooms and dens throughout the region, the one that generated the most response focused on the death of a dog, his family’s pet, Missy.

» READ MORE: The column that touched readers most | Bill Lyon

“Her legacy will be The Grin,” that column concluded, “and the remembrance that when your face is occupied by a grin, it has no room for scowl or frown or snarl. And you have no room for an unkind thought, or the heart to give voice to it. So Missy lives on.”

And for as long as they play sports in Philadelphia and pay people to write about them, so will Bill Lyon.

Mr. Lyon was predeceased by his wife. He is survived by his sons, daughter-in-law Sandy, two grandsons, a granddaughter-in-law, and a great-grandson.

The viewing for Mr. Lyon will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Donohue Funeral Home, 3300 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square.

Service and interment will be private. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, 399 Market St., Suite 102, Philadelphia, 19106.