Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Biography / Elizabeth Lyon Webb
The Education of of E. Wilson Lyon

The Education of a Mississippian: the Early Life of E. Wilson Lyon
By Elizabeth Lyon Webb
Pomona College/Arion Press, 2009 / 262 pages / $45
(Available from the Coop Store)

Elizabeth Lyon Webb spent nearly two decades researching her new book, The Education of a Mississippian: The Early Life of E. Wilson Lyon, which chronicles her father’s journey from rural Mississippi to his inauguration as president of Pomona College in 1941. Drawing on his letters and personal reflections, Webb seeks to illuminate the young man who would help shape the blueprint for the modern Pomona.

Presiding over the College between World War II and the Vietnam War, Lyon’s visionary leadership was shaped by his early experiences as a student and world traveler. During his tenure, which spanned nearly three decades, Pomona emerged as a top-ranked college known for student and faculty scholarship.

Webb spoke with PCM about transatlantic voyages, transcribing letters and writing her father’s biography.

How do you think your father’s early educational experiences shaped his views on higher education?
One of the things that was striking was how early my father developed his ideas on education. Because Heidelberg, Miss., the rural cotton-growing community where he grew up, had no accredited school past the eighth grade, he attended Jones County Agricultural High School, a three-year boarding high school in Ellisville, Miss. Students dined nightly with faculty, allowing [Lyon] to benefit from significant mentoring. As a result, very early on he recognized the importance of participating in a “community of learners.” It also began to shape his view of supporting student learning through a strong faculty.

At 17, he entered the University of Mississippi. There he developed lasting bonds with his teachers, including Professor Alexander Bondurant, who suggested during his freshman year he had the potential to be a Rhodes Scholar. As editor of the student newspaper, The Mississippian, he wrote several editorials on the importance of fully participating in campus life and activities.

During his three years as a Rhodes Scholar, he came to appreciate the “Oxford model”—students studying individually with tutors while living in small residential colleges. In Claremont, he worked to create the feeling of community among students and faculty he had known at Oxford. While in England, he followed the activities at Ole Miss and was highly critical of Gov. Bilbo’s interference with the university’s management. He wrote to family, friends and state legislators about his concern that colleges and universities must be free of political influence. His ideas about the importance of the educational community, supportive faculty and freedom of speech remained central to his thinking and guided his leadership at Pomona.

What did you learn about Wilson Lyon in this process?
[Lyon] was a self-determined man; he didn’t believe his fate was preordained. Once he was told he had the ability to become a Rhodes Scholar, he put everything into achieving that goal. He loved being at Pomona—all 28 years. One reason was its size; he was able to put his ideas about higher education into practice.

What was your research process like?
Long. I found my father’s letters from his years as a Rhodes Scholar tucked away in an old desk drawer in 1992. They inspired the book. His autobiographical sketch and articles he wrote for Mississippi newspapers during his first year at Oxford were also discovered. A memorial tribute of my father as an undergraduate written in 1989 by Girault Jones, his roommate at the University of Mississippi, as well as personal reflections and reminiscences of Heidelberg residents about community life in the 1920s and earlier supplemented my research too. In 2001, David Alexander, president emeritus of Pomona College, reviewed an early draft, but I set the manuscript aside for a couple years before picking it up again in 2006. It was published in early 2009 thanks to the support of printer-publisher Andrew Hoyem ’57 and Arion Press.

Did you have a favorite letter in the book?
One of my favorites is his first letter on board the ship Lancastria destined for England in the fall of 1925. It is so descriptive. He describes the New York City harbor and people waving goodbye to loved ones. You hear a bit of nostalgia when he says he “took it all rather quietly.” But his excitement about this important step is clear. He had traveled some, but he had been a resident of Mississippi his entire life. His innocence as a traveler is evident in the letter’s wonderful details about the ship’s hospitality or the bustling of New York City.

You wrote “history intersected” life and community for Wilson Lyon; can you expand?
The social and political worlds of his youth were swept away. By 1940, Europe was engulfed in World War II and the Europe he had known as a Rhodes Scholar disappeared. The upheavals of the American Civil Rights Movement transformed the American South. What did not disappear, however, were the values that he took from his education. These remained with him as he worked to build educational excellence at Pomona.
–Interview by Pauline Nash

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