Skip to main content

Thomas E. "Ted" Lyon

Life is not a single, compartmentalized major

J. Lee Simons

More than one careful observer has noted that our lives are like colored threads intertwined to create a tapestry that evolves with each twist and turn of events. My first encounter with Ted Lyon was during fall 2000, when I asked him to contribute an article about interdisciplinary education for Bridges ( The resulting piece revealed a great deal about Lyon’s passion for learning and teaching. “Life is simply not a single, compartmentalized major,” he declared, and his life has borne that out.

Lyon’s father, T. Edgar, was named the historian for Nauvoo Restoration in 1963. On the board of directors was a man named David M. Kennedy. As Lyon’s father made regular summer visits to Nauvoo, a long-lasting friendship formed between T. Edgar and Kennedy. This relationship and the Kennedy name would mean much more to Ted Lyon years later.

Lyon was raised in the community of East Mill Creek in the southeast sector of the Salt Lake Valley. He became a “mountain Lyon”: backpacking, fishing, caving, and climbing in the mountains of Utah and Wyoming. At Olympus High School, he participated in football, wrestling, and track. In his junior year he met Cheryl Larsen; they were married in 1962. Among their five children, two are adopted: a girl from Wisconsin and a son from Guatemala. “We thrill to our sixteen grandchildren,” said Lyon.

After serving a mission to Argentina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1959 to 1961, Lyon returned to the University of Utah and quite casually took an introduction to Spanish literature course from Ricardo Benavides, a visiting scholar from Chile. That professor and course shifted Lyon’s academic interest from biology to Latin American literature, and set his professional path in a new direction.

A Utah native, Lyon graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Utah in 1963. In 1966, he was a Fulbright scholar at the Catholic University of Chile to research his dissertation on a 1938 group of Chilean writers. He received a PhD in Latin American literature from the University of California—Los Angeles in 1967, returned to Chile in 1968 to arrange for the publication of his book, Juan Godoy, and returned again in 1972, when he was invited to speak at a literary conference.

He taught at UCLA, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Wisconsin, before joining the faculty at Brigham Young University in 1972. Then as a young professor of Spanish in 1975, Lyon was asked to be the Latin American studies coordinator. He met with Spencer Palmer [later to serve as a director of the Kennedy Center] and suggested “pooling” resources. Lyon recently quoted from his personal diary in 1975 (diary-keeping was a habit he acquired on his mission) “it’s time we quit being isolated programs of this or that different area studies; let’s bring us together under a single roof.” From this initial encounter, subsequent meetings resulted and soon a Center for International and Area Studies was created at BYU. In 1983, that entity solidified into the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies—an exciting turn of events for Lyon as threads past and present intersected.

His relationship with the center has continued over the years when he served as undergraduate studies coordinator, directed study abroad programs, and began serving once again as Latin American studies coordinator in 2004. Former and current students have witnessed and know Lyon’s dedication to them as he has provided academic counsel and directed their study abroad to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, and Chile, where in 1991 he helped to organize a program. After six months directing the BYU Study Abroad in Spain, the Lyon family remained in Europe where Lyon taught at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He taught the first class in Chicano Literature in Great Britain and lectured in universities throughout the country.

A call to serve as president of the Church’s Chile Osorno Mission took Lyon and his wife, Cheryl, back for three years from 1996 to 1999. Then with a second call in 2002, he served two years as president of the Missionary Training Center in Santiago, his service overlapping that of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who functioned as Area President in Chile.

In addition, Lyon has traveled to every Spanish-speaking country in Latin America and has completed service projects in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. His experiences abroad and his institutional longevity have given him a profound perspective on the benefits of the Employment Resource Services (ERS) program that began six years ago. As Latin American studies coordinator, Lyon has had the advantage of seeing his students before they leave, while they intern on site, and when they return.

“I’m convinced that this experience will help them after graduation. They experience teaching in Spanish and have a unique opportunity to lift people. This will most certainly create job opportunities when they get out into the working world,” Lyon reflected. “This experience abroad has given them confidence and makes them much more employable.”

He was quick to add that this is a benefit to BYU language majors or minors because they get “practical language beyond the theoretical, critical, or literary language learned in classes, or the religious and philosophical language gained through missions.”

Church members in the countries where ERS is operating also reap benefits. As their skills improve, their employment opportunities increase. In turn, Lyon makes a clear connection between their opportunities and their Church participation now and their future role as leaders who will serve in the Church. “If we take a long-range view of this program, students are not just helping an individual find a job, they are at the least, eliminating or reducing unemployment in the world,” he said. “That’s big!”

Lyon recently received a visit from a former student. She had taken a Spanish 101 class and then “made a decision to sacrifice, save money by dropping out for a semester, in order to go on the Spain study abroad in 1979,” he reported. Now, Laurie Budge is married to a successful businessman and is the mother of six children. They have lived in Tokyo for the last twelve years. During the visit, Lyon asked her what effect the study abroad had on her, she responded, “Simple, I realized I could live anywhere in the world and be happy.”

“It wasn’t just the academic credit, it wasn’t the classes that she took in Spain, but she had previously held an ethnocentric view that to be happy she had to live in the U.S.—so there’s another benefit of our study abroad programs,” he recounted.

The Mexico Literacy program is another valuable experience his students have been involved with. Students teach reading and writing skills in Spanish to adults, often women, who then encourage their children to be literate and desire an education. “The students who participate in this program come back with a whole new image about immigration—an attitude they need to have about immigrants to this country, both legal and illegal immigrants. They come back with better-formed opinions and can make better choices” he said.

Service is an integral part of the experience in these remote villages that only recently received electricity and still do not have running water. But there is knowledge to be gained from the residents as well. “I learn something and so do our students. They learn that there are other approaches to life, other ways of living besides the one that they’ve grown up with,” he declared with passion. “We all need to learn this, and we can’t always learn it in books; we learn about life and about the world by being in the field, that is, the world.”

“We preach to our students from two statements that appear at the entrance to our campus. ‘The World is Our Campus’—I wish that were true. Sometimes it’s the opposite: the campus is our world, and we don’t go very far beyond this limited space,” he lamented.

“And then we combine that with the idea of ‘Enter to Learn and Go Forth to Serve.’ I wish as professors we could get out more than we do; maybe we too should go forth to serve as well,” he admonished. “We are known here at BYU for our language ability, but shouldn’t we be known for our world service ability? There are places where problems exist that we can assist in solving. Look at Professor Warner Woodworth as an example.

“If I could impart one piece of advice, it would be to get back to Latin America frequently,” he said. “There are colonies of expatriates in every major city in Latin America. They have found that there is ‘life’ there, an exciting life beyond the limitations of living in a single country.”

In August 2006, Lyon was installed as honorary consul of Chile in Utah, having met the approval of both the U.S. and the Chilean government. Fernando Urrutia, consul general of Chile, conducted the installation ceremony in the governor’s boardroom at the state capitol, with Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. and business and cultural leaders from the Chilean community in attendance.

The threads for this honorary position had been woven in Lyon’s life long before Urrutia made a visit to BYU in 2005—a visit that left an impression on him to ask the Church for the names of possible consul candidates. Due to Elder Holland’s recent service in Chile (2002–04), the Church turned to him for recommendations. Elder Holland had been tutored in Spanish by Lyon while they were both in Chile, thus he and five others were recommended. Lyon was chosen by the Chilean ambassador in Washington, D.C., and he was approved by the U.S. Department of State. His years of study and service in Chile prepared him well for this new opportunity to serve Chileans in Utah and surrounding states.

At the time, Lyon remarked that “the most challenging thing will be finding time to solve all the problems and do all the work,” since he was a full-time BYU professor, the Latin American studies coordinator, a branch president at the MTC, and had a family.

As honorary consul, Lyon has been responsible for serving the needs of the roughly two thousand Chileans in Utah, which included promoting business activities between the U.S. and Chile, assisting Chileans with U.S. legal matters, and approving visas for U.S. citizens and passport renewals for Chilean citizens—an honor rarely given to non-native dignitaries.

Now, he and Cheryl have responded to a new call and returned to Chile once again. In November, they began serving together as president and matron of the Chile Temple—new threads to be added, and the tapestry continues. Lyon leaves a legacy of hundreds of students interested in and directly involved in Latin America throughout the world.