Most people that are fans of history weren’t just born that way. It might be true that students who are passionate about the past have some predisposition wired in to their makeups. But I think it’s one of those things that needs a spark, or a gentle push, to come to life. It may be the stories of a father or grandfather. Or possibly a friend’s dad has a collection of photos from “the War” (whichever war it happens to be). Or maybe, a teacher inspires the “historical” gene to become dominant. A teacher…
Hal Lyness was born in Portland, OR on May 24, 1925 and raised in Tacoma. I don’t know for sure, but it’s quite possible that Hal’s love of history sprouted early on, because it was his passion which became that spark for hundreds of students that passed through his classroom doors. For nearly 35 years, he fascinated students in the central Iowa town where I grew up with his tremendous knowledge of days long past.
I was fortunate enough to be one of those students, and I can safely say that, while Hal taught more classes than just history, he didn’t teach history because there was no one else available. He (the teacher) was also a student of the subject, and it’s reported that his voracious appetite for reading consumed more than 100 books a year.
His wife Betty, whom he married in 1948, said her husband would give her a history lesson about every state to which they ventured. And if her studies were anything like what we got as students in class, she was probably as captivated by what he said as we were. Mr. Lyness made history current. He made events of yesterday interesting, relevant, important…essential.
And he was demanding. He teaching was rigorous and his exams were often very challenging. And though we all knew that ahead of time, we still wanted to among those few sitting in the desks of his classroom. Students would fill notebook after notebook with information, and hand cramps were as common as the ubiquitous eraser debris.
When exams were returned, we waited with baited breath for our own, anxious to see not only the score, but the comment he would put with it…in red ink as I recall with that spidery-fine handwriting. I was a solid student, but I remember vividly an exam on which I received a C+…his single-word comment at the top was “What?!?” I didn’t get another “anything-below-an-A” again. But that was Mr. Lyness…you worked hard in his class because you wanted to…and frankly, the excellence of his teaching really deserved nothing but your best efforts in return.
Hal was easily one of the most loved educators in my school…and he probably knew that. But it never affected him…I don’t think there was an ounce of ego in the man. Instead, there was a ton of pride. Pride in his work and pride in his students.
And there were the quirky things, too. His refusal to use any pencil but a #2 Dixon Ticonderoga. His absolutely orderly desk. His writing on the chalkboard, done with such care and precision that one would have thought the class was about caligraphy. And of course, his manner of dress.
His wardrobe is famously remembered as “bordering-on-outlandish”. Bright colors, pants that were too short, ties that were too wide, and suspenders. But while the day’s attire was cause for constant conversation among his students, it was never disrespectful. One just didn’t say negative things about Hal Lyness.
And years later, if one of his now-grown-up students ventured through the halls and appeared in the doorway (even during classtime), Hal immediately stopped, ran to the door with hands extended and a broad smile on his face. He’d remember your name and things about you. Maybe that’s because your own history was as important to Hal as the history he taught you.
There are hundreds of stories about the man, and they could compose a tome of considerable size, but these are some of the things I remember most.
Hal Lyness went to bed with Betty on January’s final night in 2009…and didn’t wake up. As I sat in a packed church and listened to his son give a great eulogy about his father, it struck me that Hal had become part of the thing he seemed to love the most…after his wife, his family, and hundreds and hundreds of students.
Mr. Lyness is now an historical figure. But like all great men of history, he won’t be forgotten.
Happy Birthday, Hal Lyness!!