Elijah Wilson Lyon, the Mississippi-born historian who guided Pomona College from the upheavals of World War II through the student protests of the 1960s before retiring in 1969 to become its president emeritus, died Saturday in a Pomona hospital after a long illness. He was 84.
A Rhodes scholar and recipient of countless honorary degrees and other awards, Lyon was credited with developing Pomona College, one of five undergraduate schools belonging to the Claremont Colleges, into a leading liberal arts institution.
From the time he was named president of Pomona College in 1941 until his retirement in 1969, he saw the school’s endowment rise from $3.5 million to more than $22 million and the student body swell from 790 to 1,200. Nine dormitories and academic buildings were added to the campus, including the highly regarded Seaver Science Complex and the Oldenborg Center, a residential hall for students studying foreign languages and international relations.
Known as a scholar’s scholar, the patrician-looking Lyon also took it upon himself to recruit an entire generation of faculty members, setting the tone for what is taught in classrooms there today.
“He felt his paramount duty was the appointment of a strong faculty,” said David Alexander, president of the college. “For 28 years, Wilson Lyon applied his view of liberal education to the development of Pomona College and what the college is today is the product of those dreams.”
Born in the Heidelberg, Miss., in 1904, Lyon at first planned to be a journalist. But the love of history soon took over. Lyon went to the University of Mississippi, where his outstanding record and his tenure as senior class president and editor of the college newspaper, helped him win a Rhodes Scholarship to St. John’s College at Oxford.
After returning to the United States, he began his career in the world of academics, first as an assistant professor of history at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute and then at Colgate University, where he was named head of the history department in 1934.
Almost as soon as he arrived at Pomona, he found himself in turbulent times, first because of the outset of World War II and then into the McCarthy era. Throughout it all, he is said to have stood tall in defending academic freedom.
In a 1966 tribute to Lyon, a Pomona professor said that “only years after an incident is a Pomona teacher likely to learn, and then indirectly, that the president stood unbendingly as a silent buffer, absorbing emotion-heated criticism that might, if thrust bullishly into the classroom, have ruptured a delicate emotional membrane.”
After retiring, Lyon returned once again to history, writing more history books and speaking at major colleges throughout the country. To honor him, a professorship was established in his name in 1969; and then in 1989, ground-breaking was held on campus for the college’s newest dormitory--the E. Wilson Lyon Court.
Lyon is survived by his wife, Carolyn; a daughter, Elizabeth Lyon Webb of New York; a son, John Wilson Lyon of Washington; a sister and four grandchildren. Memorial services will be held on campus March 10.