On those few occasions when he referenced her in an Inquirer column, Bill Lyon liked to compare his feisty, diminutive wife to a football player. But in their 53-year marriage, Ethel Lyon was more accurately his muse, his emotional foundation, and, more recently, his caregiver.
“The one who’s in charge of me, the one doing the heavy lifting in this partnership barely measures 5-foot-1 and hardly ever breaks 90 pounds, but, friend, she is a middle linebacker. Lace and barbed wire. Rawhide and satin,” Lyon wrote of her in 2014.
Ethel Lyon, 74, died Sunday, March 19, at Bryn Mawr Hospital. A bladder cancer survivor, she also had battled emphysema for nearly two decades.
Raising two sons and almost singlehandedly running a household while her husband traveled the country covering events that never really interested her, she also shouldered the care-giving burden after Bill Lyon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Before and after they moved into an assisted-living facility, she guided her husband — physically, mentally and spiritually — along that disease’s cruel pathway.
“The main thing is patience, which I don’t usually have,” she told the Inquirer in December. “It’s demanding. But it’s a labor of love. I’ll put it this way: I was quite ill when I was younger, and he took care of me. It’s my turn now.”
Born Ethel Gay Slade, her parents’ first girl in seven children, she grew up a tomboy adjacent to a farm in Champaign, Ill. She was a 20-year-old photographer’s assistant at the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette when she met her future husband, a sportswriter there.
“He came in one day and wanted a picture developed,” she recalled. “So I did that, and the next day he asked me out. I told him no. Three times — no, no, no. Finally he came over to my house, and I said, ‘All right, I give in.’ He wouldn’t leave me alone.”
They married four months later, on Nov. 6, 1964. In 1972, Mrs. Lyon reluctantly followed her husband to Philadelphia, after he accepted a job at the Inquirer. A small-town girl to the bone, she learned to appreciate the area, though she seldom ventured far from their Broomall home. When they moved into the split-level house they would share for 40-plus years, Mrs. Lyon warned her husband that she wouldn’t be uprooted again.
“I said, ‘This is OK,’ ” she said, “ ‘as long as I don’t have to live in the city.’ When we moved in, I told him, ‘The next time you move me, it’ll be into the ground.’ ”
After sons Jim and John were raised, Mrs. Lyon enjoyed bingo, soap operas, and occasional visits to a casino. She doted on their two grandsons and the 4-year-old great-grandson who bore her husband’s name.
And through the illnesses, the absences, the joys and sorrows of a half-century together, Ethel Lyon battled on.
“It’s a long and winding road,” Bill Lyon wrote of their marriage in 2014. “How long have you been married? a man asked the other day, and I said, ‘Can’t remember when I haven’t been.’
“And that’s a good thing.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.