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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