Mayor Lyons Rotary’s Paul Harris FellowPublished 9:19am Friday, July 31, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
When Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Fred L. Mathews praises 47th Dowagiac Mayor Donald D. Lyons as a modest person who under promises, but over performs, and prefers to let actions speak louder than words, he could be talking about the Gurgle Stopper.
Almost 40 years ago when Lyons broke into business with the Lavent Corp. in 1970 where Beeson Street Bar and Grill is today, this new idea for a small device replaced cumbersome vents in homes.
When Lyons learned that to sell Gurgle Stoppers to a national market meant changing plumbing codes in all 50 states, he methodically undertook a monumental travel task that paid big dividends, as his company went on to sell millions.
Thirty-five years ago, in 1974, he founded Lyons Industries. He developed bigger and better products, such as vacuum-formed shower stalls and bathtubs made from plastic and fiberglass. Don and his dad Dale built most of the molds, tools and equipment to make those products.
Elected in 1997, Lyons is completing his third term as mayor – a dozen years Mathews calls Lyons’ “greatest contributions to Dowagiac” among many, going back to three years as Board of Education president or preserving local fishing lure history by founding the National Heddon Museum with Joan, his wife of 41 years.
“I am proud that I was able to play a part in his decision to run for mayor and in his election,” Mathews said Thursday in announcing Lyons, a former Rotarian, as the club’s Paul Harris Fellow, a medallion, plaque and pin that are the international organization’s highest community service recognition.
“Don’s nearly 12 years as mayor have been exceptional years of progress for Dowagiac and the surrounding area,” said Mathews, who has known the mayor since he was a boy, working alongside Dale to establish SMC, which has a building named for each man, just as City Council in 2007 named the Donald Lyons Health Center which rose upon the site of demolished Central Middle School for Don.
Mathews said, “Projects under Mayor Lyons’ leadership were not only maintenance projects which are necessary year after year, but significant major new initiatives and infrastructure projects which will secure Dowagiac as a viable community for generations to come. To name all the major projects accomplished since Don has been mayor would take a separate speech, so let me touch on just a few.
“Nearly 300 homes have been rehabbed. The city has captured about $1 million each year in state and federal grant money for local projects. Facilitated construction of about 30 downtown apartments. Helped establish Dowagiac District Library. Built a new commercial center where a department store (Pamida) and motel (Baymont, formerly AmeriHost) are now located. Brought Eagle’s Wood and Eagle’s Trace apartments, as well as a new assisted living facility (Forest Glen) to that commercial center. Completed development of the state-certified Dowagiac industrial park. Established Lincoln Community Center, which is now Encore School of the Performing Arts. Built a skateboard park for kids. Started the Police Athletic League for kids. Rebuilt Heddon, Rotary, Walter Ward and Northwest parks and the soon-to-be-expanded Russom athletic complex. The list goes on and on.”
Mathews said to an audience which included City Manager Kevin Anderson and Joy Strand, administrator and chief operating officer, Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital, “Don has been blessed with a strong and supportive City Council as well as a competent city administration. They supported his leadership in the revitalization of this community. Don is blessed with a fine and supportive family.”
Mathews characterizes the mayor as a “modest person who under promises but over performs. He prefers to let actions speak louder than words. Don is an ‘out of the box’ creative thinker. He knows how to put together complex projects. The new Donald Lyons Health Center is an example. Don worked for five years to put that project together. Without his leadership, it would not have happened.
“In his determination to find a way the city could help strengthen our hospital, Don saw the critical need for physicians’ offices to aid in the recruitment of new physicians and to provide clinical space,” Mathews said. “Don knew that a strong and successful hospital is a critical component to have a strong community. That building has contributed much to the strength of the hospital and, therefore, to the economic strength of our community. The Dowagiac City Council, recognizing Don Lyons’ community service record and his key role in acquiring that building, voted unanimously in 2007 to name that beautiful building after Mayor Lyons.
“Because of Don’s many significant contributions to this community and because his accomplishment will have such a positive impact on this community for decades to come, it is fitting and appropriate that Don Lyons be recognized by the highest award Dowagiac Rotary Club can bestow, a Paul Harris Fellowship,” the retired optometrist said.
“I got the whole family here under the pretense that Don and Joan were going to give a presentation about the Heddon museum,” Mathews said.
“Lance’s wife, Liz, will kick me if I don’t introduce the head of the family, Don and Joan’s grandson, Lucas.”
“Don was fortunate to have been born into a talented and loving family. His parents, Dale and Doris, set an example of hard work, determination, honesty and ethics. This gave him the foundation to move from a modest beginning to the very successful businessman he is today.”
A lifelong Dowagiac resident, Lyons graduated from Union High School with high honors in 1964. In fact, his senior year he received the John Clupper Memorial Scholarship for best all-around athlete, leader and scholar in his senior class. He graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in 1968.
As he became established in industry, peers recognized Lyons.
In 1983, he received the prestigious Spes Hominum Award from the National Sanitation Foundation. He also has been an executive member of the Society of Plastics Engineers since 1983.
“Dowagiac is a special place in which to live and work,” Mathews said. “This is because we have special people, like Don Lyons, who devote their lives to making it such. Many people who become successful celebrate their success by lots of golf, months in Florida, etc. Not Don. It is fortunate for the citizens of Dowagiac and surrounding communities that Don spends most of what could be leisure time working for us, the citizens of the greater Dowagiac community. I believe when all is said and done, one key measurement of a person’s success in life is how much a person gives back to the community – not what they take from it.”
Lyons served on the school board for eight years. He was a member of the Cass County Economic Development Corp. for eight years. He was a member of the Michigan Association of School Boards Legislative Committee for seven years. He served on the Lee Memorial Hospital Foundation and was deeply involved in its successful campaign which raised about $2 million toward a $3.5 million to $4 million renovation and expansion of the emergency department.
“From 1987 to 1998, the 11 years I served as chairman of the Dowagiac Downtown Development Authority, when we completely reconstructed and rebuilt our downtown, Don served for a time as a member of the DDA Design Review Committee,” Mathews recalled. “That committee helped design and then approved the beautiful storefronts you see in downtown Dowagiac today. Also, Don’s father Dale served for some years as chairman of the Design Review Committee.”
Lyons served on the city Zoning Board of Appeals from 1993 to 1997.
He has served on the Cass County Transportation Authority since 1997 and been its chairman since 2005.
“During these busy years,” Mathews said, “Don still found time to collect and restore antique cars and race cars. If you saw the IMAX movie, ‘Super Speedway,’ starring Don, Joan, Dale and Mario Andretti, you saw how Don can take a truckload of rusty-looking junk, which used to be a car or race car, and resurrect and rebuild its one-time grandeur. Don is nationally known for the quality of his restorations. He has shown his award-winning cars at numerous national events, including the prestigious Meadowbrook and Pebble Beach, Calif., Concours d’Elegance.
“A few years ago, Don and Joan founded the National Heddon Museum (in the old James Heddon’s Sons building between Telegraph and West streets that is now part of Lyons Industries).
“This museum is dedicated to recognizing and preserving the many contributions of the Heddon family to the City of Dowagiac (including founding the Daily News in 1897), “as well as the products of James Heddon’s Sons, manufacturer of fishing tackle.”