On a partly cloudy day, sitting in a lawn chair next to a melting mountain of snow outside the Lory Student Center, clad in jeans, beard and stocking-cap is a 72-year old man named Daniel Lyons, calling out, “read all about it!” with the energy of a adolescent paperboy.
On a similar partly cloudy day, several blocks south of campus, in a mute-green house, buried behind a front yard so exponentially overgrown that the compact, white Nissan Sentra in the driveway can only make it about a third of the way to the garage–the same man quietly sips tea despairing that the world has gone awry.
“Laugh during the day and weep at night,” said Lyons, discussing what, for him, may well be a motto to live by.
Lyons, or “Ol’ Yeller,” as he fondly refers to himself, has retired from his career as a professor of philosophy at CSU, but he has yet to give up teaching.
“I am a born teacher,” Lyons said, “and I want to teach people the facts.”
Best known around campus for his outlandish outcries and raw, revealing reviews of American and international affairs, liberating Lyons, from his lawn-chair pulpit, seems relentlessly to preach for upheaval and citizen empowerment.
The odd thing is, despite his fervent efforts, Lyons himself has little belief in his efforts, seeing them as somewhat futile.
“I can’t have any effect, but I do it for my own self-respect,” said Lyons frankly. According to Lyons, his work towards spreading “the facts” can never achieve its ultimate goal. To him, the adage “think globally, act locally” is as idealistic as believing in the notion of there eventually being a global village.
“Young people dream they can make a difference, but in reality only a few big guys can do it,” said Lyons whose reasons for preaching politics are something of a catch-22–while he is a natural teacher, he has little faith in what may result from his lessons, yet he believes he must at least put effort forth to assuage his own anxiety.
“We can’t have an effect, but we can sure raise hell,” Lyons said.
And for many of his years in Fort Collins and at CSU, Lyons has done just that.
Lyons came to CSU in 1966. He was in his mid-thirties, a Korean war veteran and a former monk. He fit nicely into the philosophy department.
After being in the service, Lyons sought the deeper meanings of human behavior and studied for two years as a novice with the Dominicans as “a beginning monk.”
“I was raised in a super-Catholic family, that’s part of how I got into studying with the Dominicans, but there was one problem: they had a routine of getting up at six a.m. every morning,” Lyons said. “I am a night person, so I got out because of the morning routine.”
Lyons continued his studies at the University of Chicago and continued his work in philosophy, eventually getting his doctorate. Eventually, Lyons came to CSU and he remained until his retirement.
His persistent Catholic involvement declined since his arrival at CSU, but his community involvement filled in where religion left off.
“I am a bad Catholic,” said Lyons who went on to explain that he doesn’t believe anymore, but continues to pay attention and see value in several parts of the Catholic doctrine he had been raised under.
One particular portion of the doctrine that seems to re-emerge in Lyons’ life, particularly at CSU, has been his focus on the Catholic theory of just war.
“Under the theory of just war, it is not that war is always wrong, but it is presumed so unless it can be justified,” Lyons said, “and for a war to be justified it must first be necessary, and second, it must help more than it will hurt.”
Not only did this apply to Lyons’ conceptions of his past military experience or to his current political activism, but also it was a major focus of Lyons’ teaching career in the CSU philosophy department where he taught social philosophy.
All of his observations of human behavior were not simply played out in his classrooms, however.
Lyons came to Colorado State during the early years of Vietnam opposition, during a time when U.S. involvement was being questioned, and during a time when no theory for just war seemed to apply.
“For being such a peace-loving nation, we sure are at war a lot,” said Lyons, who adamantly and actively opposed Vietnam (not to mention almost every war since).
In his third and fourth years at CSU, Lyons led rallies protesting Vietnam. According to Lyons, CSU, at the time, had a sizeable minority protesting the war despite what the conservative descriptions of CSU’s official history mentions. Lyons and other protesters, in fact, were a prevalent enough force on campus to lead a nationally known political cartoonist of the time, Al Capp, to satirize the university as being a hippie institution.
Capp’s conservative-minded criticisms, particularly one cartoon describing nationally known folk singer and war protester Joan Baez as “Joanie the phony” and stereotyping her as a hippie, were met head-on at CSU by the equally critical Lyons. In fact, when Capp decided to visit CSU and speak on campus, Lyons convinced the political cartoonist at the Collegian to satirize Al Capp as “All Crap,” a man who hated students as a result of his wooden leg.
“I forgot one thing, though, Al Capp would have the last word in his speech,” said Lyons who attended Capp’s speech where the cartoonist limped onto the stage exaggerating the presence of his wooden leg and went on to refer to Lyons as “Little Orphan Danny” saying that Lyons “was only an assistant professor, which they don’t have at Harvard, or if they do, they clean the toilets.”
In a second instance where Lyons nearly forgot who had the last word, Lyons had been caught on TV protesting Dow Chemical for its support of the Vietnam war.
“I was on [TV] barefoot, dressed a in black robe, carrying a coffin with a child wrapped in plastic saran wrap and on fire to protest Dow Chemical, which made plastic wrap, but also napalm,” Lyons said. “All of this, before I even had tenure.”
Lyons’ protesting on television led the then chair of the philosophy department, Willard Eddy, to warn Lyons to ease off on protesting because he had yet to be approved for tenure at CSU.
“Eddy reminded me that any dean at the school could veto my tenure,” Lyons said. “Willard Eddy and I didn’t agree on the war, but he saved me from getting fired.”
Now that he is retired, however, Lyons is back to his old antics, but his approach has changed. Lyons now does not so much protest in reaction to world events and government actions, instead, he is “spreading the facts” about what is happening.
From his lawn chair he can be heard exclaiming, “Get your freedom fries, they are healthier than French fries” or any number of other catchy headlines drawing attention to his fliers and Web site (danlyons.blogspot.com) that tell of a world on the decline.
“I think most, but not all people in the world are crazy,” said Lyons who warns that the United States is controlled by the Pentagon and that the world’s largest problems are American aggression, Muslim craziness and a doctrine presented in September 2002 stating that America will launch a pre-emptive attack against any nation overtaking us in weapons.
“I am an isolationist. Most Americans don’t care about the outside world,” Lyons said. “We are not going to change the mind of the average Muslim so I think we need to spend our money on home defense. We need to build up fortress America.”
The overgrown yard outside of his house has an almost metaphorical relationship with how Lyons has come to view the world. His story is one of declining hope, mirroring the frustrations of many who have outgrown being young and idealistic.
Before working to become a professor, before he even sought to be a monk, Lyons was in the army. As a clerk in the Korean War, Lyons’ young idealism was worn out quickly.
“I saw the ugliness of war,” said Lyons who was stationed in Inchon, a seaport of Seoul that held thousands of refugees during the Korean War. “I talked to soldiers who were either wounded or crazy. I heard their stories about the front lines and I had to judge whether or not to send them back out there.”
His war experience prompted his interest in social philosophy and eventually led to his political involvement, but Lyons never saw the fruits of his labor. His idealism has given way to harsh realism and Lyons can’t help but think now that the world is on a slippery slope towards decline.
“Fanatics in the world are people associated with seeking an ideal,” said Lyons warning of the dangers of idealism. “Unfortunately, so often their dedication lacks wisdom and this leads to crazy fundamentalism. Without wisdom, dedication is a vice.”
But what of the idealism that Lyons displays every time he calls out to students to interest them in their world?
“I am a fair-weather prophet, I think I am wise, but not very dedicated,” said Lyons. “I would like to make [the students] interested to get them to read and get interested in the rest of the world. I would like to think that I have some effect on educating some CSU students, but I despair that ignorant Americans will ever become informed.”
Lyons’ despair has overtaken his idealism and, so now, for him, national isolation is the answer.
“We shouldn’t meddle with the world we don’t understand,” said Lyons.
Lyons’ quest continues, not so much with the lofty goal of causing change, but with the realistic goal of feeling like he is at least attempting to have an impact. But his quest is tragic for himself in that he can foresee only small bits of value in his work. But from his lawn-chair soapbox, Lyons will, nevertheless, continue to smile, chuckle and exclaim, “read all about it” in the day while he continues his work because, as he says:
“Laugh during the day, and weep at night.”