Dr. Eugene Lyon, an international expert on Spanish Colonial Florida and the Spanish maritime system, died on May 3, 2020 in Vero Beach, Florida. He was 91 years of age. He married Dorothy Mathews Lyon in 1951 and had four children, all of whom survive him: Margaret Sue (John McCoy), Kenneth Eugene (Susan Gladstone), Katharine Vinelle (Jay Reeve) and Mary Beth (Greg Carlson). He is also survived by six grandchildren. His wife of over 60 years, his twin brother and his oldest grandson predeceased him.
Dr. Lyon had a wonderful spirit and a love of the absurd. While his insightful intelligence made him a skilled historian, it also provided his family with a home environment filled with interesting discussions of topics ranging from politics, social change, and why you shouldn't be disrespectful of a dictator while living in his country. Along with his height, Dr. Lyon passed on many of his best characteristics to his grandsons - loyalty to those you love, kindness, and a desire to right the wrongs of the world. At the unveiling of the Santa Elena History Center Eugene Lyon Center for Scholarship, a peer called Dr. Lyon, "the teacher of us all."
Dr. Lyon was born and raised in Miami, Florida, the son of Homer and Katharine Lyon and twin brother of Homer Lyon, Jr. He received his Bachelor of Arts on an ROTC scholarship at the University of Florida and then served in the navy during the Korean War. After receiving his Master of Science at the University of Denver, he served as the Assistant City Manager of Coral Gables in the late 1950s, and City Manager of Vero Beach from 1958-1961. From 1961-1962 he worked as the business manager for the Congo Polytechnic Institute, helping to create a university system for the citizens of post-independence Republic of the Congo.
In 1967, Dr. Lyon returned to the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in Latin American History. He then launched a career dedicated to discovering, sharing, and interpreting hidden primary sources that shed light on the impact of the Spanish empire on the Americas. Dr. Lyon's publications included The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568, The Search for the Atocha, and Santa Elena: A Brief History of the Colony. He published numerous conference papers and book chapters. He authored five National Geographic articles, including two cover articles. One of the cover articles, "Search for Columbus" (January 1992) was based on information discovered by Dr. Lyon in his research in Spain, resulting in a general scholarly re-thinking of Columbus and his first landing in the Americas. He wrote one of the few monographs on the Ais indigenous people of southeastern Florida. From data he uncovered in the Archivo General de Indias (archives of colonial Spain), Dr. Lyon enabled salvor Mel Fisher to locate and definitively identify the sunken ships Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita in the lower Florida Keys. His archival research also resolved key questions about the colonial layout of St. Augustine, Florida.
For fourteen years, Dr. Lyon directed the St. Augustine Foundation at Flagler College, collecting and curating more than a thousand reels of film of materials related to Spanish Florida. He was an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Florida and served on the Board of Directors of the Florida Endowment for the Humanities and of the Florida Historical Society, and as Chair of the Board of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. After his retirement, he and his wife Dorothy continued to microfilm private archives documenting Florida's colonial period throughout the Spanish-speaking world, traveling to – among other places – Colombia, Cuba, and Spain. This work preserved fragile primary source documents for future researchers. He served as a long-term consultant to the Santa Elena History Center on Parris Island, South Carolina. Throughout his career and into the final years of his life, Dr. Lyon was a tireless advocate for greater awareness of local history, speaking to schools, churches, business groups, and seniors about Florida lore and archaeology. A self-described "Puckish" historian, Dr. Lyon enjoyed using primary sources to enrich and reinterpret received wisdom.
Dr. Lyon received the grade of Orden de Isabel la Católica (Official of the Order of Isabella) from King Juan Carlos of Spain, and the grade of Comendador in the Order of Christopher Columbus from the President of the Dominican Republic. The City of St. Augustine granted him its highest honor - the Order of La Florida. In 2003, the Florida Historical Society gave him the Jillian Prescott Award for lifetime service to Florida history. In 2005, he received the Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award. In April of 2019, Dr. Lyon was honored as chairman emeritus at the Santa Elena Foundation in Beaufort, South Carolina with the dedication of the Eugene Lyon Center for Scholarship at the Santa Elena History Center. His work and a bronze Columbus statue commissioned by National Geographic are included in the display.
Dr. Lyon and his wife were founding members of Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church in Vero Beach, Florida. Dr. Lyon served as lay leader, usher team leader, Sunday school teacher, and on multiple church boards.
The family thanks Dr. Lyon's loving friend Myrnie Browning who has been a great comfort to him in the past year. His caregivers and the staff at both The Brennity of Vero Beach and at Grace Rehabilitative Center of Vero Beach have provided him with both skilled care and caring affection at a difficult time when his family was prevented – by the Novel Corona Virus pandemic – from being by his side. Though not there physically, his family was with him in every way possible during this time through their love and respect.
The family has asked that donations be made in Dr. Lyon's name to Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church. Plans for a local memorial service will be announced at a later date.
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Published by St. Augustine Record from May 9 to May 10, 2020.