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Louis James Lyell (1925-2023): 
A Tribute to a Gentle Giant of Mississippi

by Lucius Lampton, Gazette Editor


THE LYELL FAMILY OF JACKSON BY WELTY--- This photo was taken by writer Eudora Welty and is of the Judge Garland and Clarena Hallam Lyell family. Standing, left to right, Judge Lyell and Frank. Sitting, left to right, Louis, Clarena, and Garland, Jr. (who was called Brother by his family). They lived at 935 Bellevue Place. 

LOUIS LYELL IN FRONT OF SPEER-LYELL OBSERVATORY AT ST. ANDREW’S---This photo was taken a decade ago and shows Louis Lyell in front of the Speer-Lyell Observatory at the Ridgeland campus of St. Andrew’s School. 

     Louis’s towering and lovely mother Clarena Bailey Hallam, who joked she was 5 foot 12 inches rather than six feet tall, was the daughter of the Rev. Frank Hallam, a gifted writer of such religious books as “The Breath of God,” “The Supreme Rite,” and “The Devil’s Masterpiece.” He had been among the more important rectors in the early history of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson. Clarena possessed an extraordinary musical voice and sang in the St. Andrew’s choir for sixty years. As well, she was the longtime soloist at Temple Beth Israel in Jackson on Friday evenings. She often would bring young Louis with her to her practices and performances there, which imparted a lifelong closeness for Louis to the Jewish community. 
    Louis’s youth was a happy one in a family of books, art, and achievement. Clarena and Judge Lyell’s household was vibrant and loving, with the three brothers, Frank Hallam, Gordon Garland, Jr. (called “Brother”), and Louis growing up closely, forming bonds which would persist their entire lives. It was said that Clarena kept her pregnancy with Louis a secret from Frank, who was away at school for an extended period, then surprised him on his return home by hiding in a closet with little Louis and popping out with him, stating to Frank, “Here is your little brother!” The distance in years between the first two boys and Louis added even further to the brothers’ closeness, with Louis in the standing of not only a little brother but almost a son to Frank and Brother. Especially Frank, a world-traveled college professor, took an interest in Louis, directing his reading of books, his educational attainments, his world travels, and his intellectual growth. Frank shared not only his advice but also his extensive collection of celebrated connections. Frank’s close friend Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, visited the Bellevue Place home frequently, taking many family portraits and interacting with Louis as a little brother. In the summer times, Louis would attend the “South’s oldest camp” Lookout Mountain Camp for Boys in Mentone, Alabama. The camp provided a full range of activities for young men, from canoeing to swimming to tennis to horseback riding to a rifle range to Sunday Vespers. Of course, Louis won the coveted silver trophy for “Best Camper” during his period there in the 1930s, performing impressively in swimming and other athletic competitions. After Brother grew to six feet seven, doting Clarena had Louis smoke cigarettes briefly in an attempt to stunt his growth as a teen. A photo taken by Eudora Welty of an unwilling Louis puffing a cigarette as an early teenager is a treasured photograph with which he often received teasing by his daughters. He only reached six feet four due to his mother’s efforts!

    Scion of a distinguished Mississippi lineage and a member of the “Greatest Generation,” Louis James Lyell was one of Jackson’s treasures. His recent death on March 18, 2023 at his home in Jackson reminded many of the thousands of lives he touched in his special way over his long life. He was born on September 15, 1925 to a prominent Jackson couple who resided on the city’s highest point at the crest of Bellevue Place, with a view overlooking the fairgrounds and the Pearl River. (He liked to tell people that the temperature on the day of his birth was 104 degrees.) Both sides of Louis’s family were physically tall and big boned to match equally massive and extraordinary intellects intertwined with bravery and integrity. His name like his enormous talents were derived from both the Hallams and the Lyells, Louis being a Hallam uncle and James being his grandfather Captain Lyell. 
     His father Gordon Garland Lyell, the son of a decorated Virginia-born Confederate captain who became a respected Wesson merchant and banker, was a brilliant attorney and banker who achieved significant local fame as a chancellor early in his career, which earned him the life-long sobriquet “Judge Lyell.” (as his father had always been known as “Captain Lyell”) Judge Lyell is especially remembered by the Ole Miss family for his critical role as the student editor-in-chief of the school’s first annual in 1897 who selected the name “Ole Miss” for it, which in time became the name of the university. He is also remembered as the long-time chair of the board of the Department of Archives and History. He led the historic restoration of the Old Capitol in the late 1950s as well as having the vision and fortitude in 1955 to appoint the brilliant Charlotte Capers as the first female executive director of the Department (she was the first woman to head a state agency in Mississippi history).


LYELL PLAYING TENNIS--- He liked to say he played tennis before it became popular

       After attending Davis School and graduating from famed Central High School in Jackson, Louis went on to Ole Miss, becoming a Delta Psi like his father and preparing for law school. Louis joked that “I went to Ole Miss, but I got over it.” As the Second World War erupted, Louis went to officer candidate school and was sent to Europe in the dust of the war’s closing days, assigned to guard so-called “displaced persons” during the occupation of Europe by Allied forces. There, in occupied Austria, he served as officer of the guard over several hundred former SS (Schutzstaffel), Hitler’s elite soldier group. He remembered his bizarre status as a foreigner among these former enemies speaking only German. He would not only lift up an abandoned airplane briefly and dangerously, but he also began to learn, speak, and read German and toured sites, such as the ruins of the Berghof and the Eagles Nest, Hitler’s home in Alps, even bringing home a chip of marble from Hitler’s mantle, now framed in his library. His first sojourn in Europe would leave him with a driving thirst not only for further European journeys but also to participate and observe world history and events. 


LOUIS LYELL AS A YOUTH--- This photo was taken by Eudora Welty, who took many photographs of Louis as a child. 


LOUIS LYELL IN 1937--- This photo was taken by the famous writer Eudora Welty and is in her backyard garden. Louis, 12, can be seen with a cigarette in his hand, which his mother had encouraged him to adopt to stunt his growth as his older brother was 6 foot 7 inches. (It did not work. Louis would grow to 6 foot 4 inches in height!)

      Returning home to Mississippi, he finished up at Ole Miss as an undergraduate and then graduated from law school. After graduation in the family trade, he joined his father and brother briefly at Lyell and Lyell law firm. Realizing quickly law was not for him, Louis went to Germany to live with a German family for four months to be an observer in the foreign department at a German bank, with the intent, no doubt encouraged by brother Frank, of becoming fluent in German. He witnessed from a roof-top an unexpected and evolving early Cold War riot in Berlin; he documented it with photographs and left the roof-top when tanks arrived and bullets started flying over his head. In the rush, he left behind his umbrella, having to return the next day among the riot debris to retrieve it. He recalls: “It was at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin on the sector boundary between the Communist/East German sector and the American/British/French sectors, 17 June 1953. If you google that Platz and the date, it should tell you everything. Some friends, on the 16th, said if I went there the 17th, I should find it interesting. I have a whole German book about that one day, which I viewed from the roof of a one-story building. That book shows the ladder on the building’s side that I used to get on the roof. It was a riot of East Sector workers, who were fed up with oppressive Communism. They were fired on by East Sector police. The Russian T-34 tanks were aimed in my direction but did not fire. When the rifle fire got too hot, I, and everyone else, beat it out of there. I jumped on a departing trolly. The next day, the West’s police had cordoned off the sector boundary some distance back. I claimed to be a journalist and they let me go to the boundary where I got a good view of the Communist police and the Russian tanks. And who should walk up but James B. Conant, former president of Yale, and then our High Commissioner in occupied Germany. I photoed him. It was a short walk to the famous Brandenburg Gate, void of people, but who should drive up with his staff but General [Charles] Coleman, whose charge was the British Sector. I later located his family in England and sent them my snapshot.”      

    His memories of his adventure at the Potsdamer Platz reveal many things about Louis’s personality and his embrace of the world: he was keenly interested in world events; he possessed bravery, a reporter’s observational eye, and ingenuity; and he constantly connected with other humans, both high and low, using his camera not only to document the riot historically but to connect with General Coleman’s family with an act of kindness. He traveled to Salzburg and elsewhere, connecting with dozens of Europeans who would his remain life-long friends. Among those friends was Fridtjof Speer, then a German scientist studying in Berlin, who would relocate to the United States and work for NASA for three decades. Louis returned to the United States to work for the SBA in Washington, D. C., where he became a whistle-blower on a corrupt boss and was advised by a young Bobby Kennedy (who was investigating the case) to keep a gun on his bedside table for his own protection. 

     Louis returned home to Jackson to a more normal life, becoming a Lincoln National Life Insurance agent, where due to his intellect he became the trusted agent for most of the physicians and professors at the newly created University Medical Center. His best friend, Dr. Herbert Langford, a world-renown cardiologist, frequently encouraged him to finish the required medical requirements, specifically organic chemistry, and “I will get you in!” Louis seems always a little regretful he didn’t pursue Herbert’s sincere advice that he would thrive as a physician. But Louis was thriving as a respected insurance agent, with the reputation of selling only what one needed, nothing more. 

     Louis married Tippy Reimers in 1964, and they were soon joined by his two lovely daughters Lorna Margaret in 1965 and Louise Hallam in 1966. Louis was an attentive, loving, and engaged husband and father who created with Tippy a brilliant family-centered home at 3801 Old Canton Road. His HAM radio interests were readily apparent via a massive amateur radio tower visible to the right of his two-story brick Georgian-style house. The Lyell family connection to the famous Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell would impart the name for the family poodle, Charlie. His children frequently heard his admonitions as they left the house on their way to and from St. Andrew’s and college: Don’t do anything dumb (so frequently said it became the acronym DDAD), don’t tailgate, and call us when you get there. He carried on many of his parenting traditions with his grandchildren, who called him “Woo.” 

   In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as St. Andrew’s School began its planning to construct a new campus on Old Agency Road in Madison six miles north of its old location, Louis’s genius connected with that of the visionary headmaster, David Hicks, who conceived a school and a campus of national caliber based on the classics and science, a concept which propelled St. Andrew’s forward to become one of the nation’s finest academic high schools. Although no observatory had been postulated by the architects, Hicks added one to the campus masterplan at Louis’s singular encouragement. Hicks said in February 1982: “Mr. Lyell noticed there was no observatory and said he’d like to add one.” The creation of the Speer-Lyell Observatory, the first observatory on a high school campus in Mississippi, was considered not only unique for Mississippi but also “fairly unique in the United States among high schools,” said one professor of physics at the time. [Clarion-Ledger, “Observatory would make St. Andy’s unique” Feb. 10, 1982, page 83.] Constructed on a lake near the front of the campus, the observatory was the only structure originally visible from the school entrance, and in time, it would become the symbol of the institution and its academic exceptionalism. 
   In his typical pattern of leadership, Louis was intimately involved not only in the observatory concept but also in the bricks and mortar construction process, researching in detail other observatories. He addressed the problems of building on Yazoo clay and how to properly anchor the pier on which the telescope would be mounted to prevent vibrations which might distort telescopic images. At the very beginning of the project, he stressed the necessity of linking mathematics and physics to the observatory’s use, which would enable St. Andrews to begin teaching astronomy as part of its academic program. Louis named the observatory appropriately as well, in honor of NASA scientist Fridtjof Speer, whom Louis had known since his Berlin days in 1953, and Louis’s brother Frank Lyell, a scholar of English literature who in so many ways tutored and molded Louis’s intellect and scholarly interests. (Frank’s legacy persists elsewhere at St. Andrew’s; Louis donated much of Frank’s extraordinary library after his death in 1977 to form the foundation of the upper school’s library.)  Louis recalled in later years this epiphany about building the observatory: “The idea of an observatory popped into my head, and without a moment of reflection, I decided to make the offer to pay for its construction and equipping. At that time, I would have been hard put to explain my action and today it is no clearer to me. But I have never doubted the need for such a facility and the role it could play in exciting young minds. There is the opportunity with the observatory to acquaint all students with the knowledge that a world exists beyond that operated with the thumbs. Astronomy embraces physics, chemistry, radio, the classics of literature, and many more things than I can imagine. If students cannot be in awe of the beauty of the skies, they are sorely lacking.” [Archways 17-Spring 2013, page 30-31.]



LITTLE LOUIS AT 2---  Little Louis Lyell is pictured in a Goat Wagon in 1927.


CHARCOAL PORTRAIT OF LOUIS LYELL, 1930s--- This portrait was made in Louis’s youth. 



    Louis further reflected on his late brother, Dr. Frank Lyell and the observatory: “Frank was not in the least scientific, but he was a scholar of English literature. This has me thinking of an astronomical reference from a poem by Omar Khayyam that Frank would surely have known, ‘Awake, for morning in the bowl of night, has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight: and lo! The hunter of the East has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.’” [Ibid.]   The observatory project took five years to complete, and in March 1987, with Louis still engaged in all aspects of the astronomy program, he announced in a physics journal: “Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi is looking for a physics-astronomy teacher who has a really good mind, has an M. A. in physics with an appropriate knowledge of astronomy, really likes these subjects and wants very much to teach them, and can relate to young people. The Speer-Lyell Observatory (with Ash dome, C-14 telescope, Beyer’s mount, and Starlight-1 photometer) is now completed. Because of these excellent observing facilities, some I. A. P. P. P. members may want to apply, which they may do by contacting the undersigned.” (International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry Communication, No. 27, p. 42) The annual St. Andrew’s astronomy award is appropriately named the Louis James Lyell Award for Excellence in Astronomy, and his family recently established the Louis James Lyell Endowment to upkeep permanently the observatory.    Longtime St. Andrew’s Physics and Astronomy instructor John Applegate recently wrote to Louis’s family and reflected on his friend’s significant impact on others: “When I think of Louis - I am reminded of so many good qualities that make the world a wonderful place. His insatiable curiosity is one of his hallmarks. Any subject (from astronomy to bees) was worthy of his study and, of course, rather than keep this information for private use, his generosity of spirit manifested itself in so many ways. For me, it was the observatory and thanks to Louis, hundreds of students (SA and otherwise) got a chance to look at the night sky. Louis was an incredible person, whose life influenced all those he came in contact with to be better from that moment onward.”    Louis carried on his brother Frank Lyell’s literary contributions in many ways: helping lead the Friends of University Press; maintaining a close friendship with Eudora Welty, Pamela Travers, and others in Frank’s circle; serving as the first chair of the Eudora Welty Foundation; and connecting with many Russian scholars through travel with University Press and Welty International Meetings. Also, from Frank and his Hallam and Lyell relatives came a passion for the Episcopal and Anglican traditions. Louis headed the vestry at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson, but several years after the church abandoned the Book of Common Prayer (1928), Louis left the church and beginning in 1984 led the founding of the more traditional Anglican church St. Stephen’s in Flowood, which honored him by naming their parish hall Lyell Hall. [Letters exist in the Eudora Welty archives in Jackson between Frank and Eudora, in which both, especially Frank, bemoan the changes occurring in the Episcopal Church in the early 1970s.] Louis in many ways resembles the Moses statue atop the Hinds County Courthouse in downtown Jackson which he has often referred to in his many letters to newspaper editors: a religious leader standing tall pointing the way. His religious convictions are passionate, sincere, and extraordinarily thoughtful.    Louis was a true renaissance man in the classic definition, and until his death, retaining his sharp mind all the way, he immersed himself deeply into intellectual hobbies. He was a beekeeper with hives in his backyard and apiaries throughout the state (he even bottled honey labeled Yes, Honey). He had a seismometer in his living room and donated two others to St. Andrew’s and to Rhodes College for their academic use. (His earthquake readings have been published in research journals, and Rhodes College has written his family of he frequent use of theirs.) His backyard hobby hut was really his own research laboratory, filled with an array of yard tools and microscopes, with his bees buzzing about nearby, with an occasional one getting inside. Despite his embrace of conservative causes, he was fascinated by new technology and reveled in it. He was quick to purchase the latest phone, computer, or digital camera, although he frequently needed a young child to help him install the computer software! “Christmas with Woo was a SkyMall catalogue brought to life,” his grandson Crawford relates, with most of his thoughtful and creative family Christmas gifts being technological or electronic gadgets or accessories. He attempted to discover new and better ways to perform tasks. He usually bought a library copy and a reading copy of many of the better books he read. He took to cutting off the reading copy’s binding and replacing it with a spiral wire, which he asserted made the reading so much more enjoyable and practical due to it lying flat.

LOUIS LYELL WEARING HIS CHRISTENING BONNET, WHICH WAS ALSO WORN THAT DAY BY HIS FIRST GRANDSON CRAWFORD LAMPTON--- Crawford is held by his aunt Jane Ann Lampton Moore and his grandfather Bob Lampton is in the background. The Christening Party was held at the home of Lorna Reimers (Grand Dan). 

LOUIS LYELL IN 1937--- This photo was taken by the famous writer Eudora Welty and is in her backyard garden. Louis, 12, can be seen with a cigarette in his hand, which his mother had encouraged him to adopt to stunt his growth as his older brother was 6 foot 7 inches. (It did not work. Louis would grow to 6 foot 4 inches in height!)

LOUIS WITH HIS GIRLS, CRUISING TO BERMUDA--- Here is a photo of Lorna and Louise with their Daddy during a favorite summer activity: a family trip.  

LOUIS LYELL IN LIBRARY WITH GRANDCHILDREN--- Louis is shown happily holding his only granddaughter Alison Chain and his grandson Crawford in a favorite chair in his beloved library. 



LOUIS BY EUDORA--- This photo was taken by family friend Eudora Welty, who told him to pose as “The Thinker.” 


     His intellectual curiosity was social. He loved people, even though he liked to smirk at their foibles and foolishness. He also liked to make funny faces (something he shared with Eudora Welty and her circle of friends), and with his decline in hearing in his later years, he seemed to make even more funny faces to communicate his feelings! He utilized scholarship to engage with and stimulate others. He was known to engage in conversation with strangers in a check-out line or at the baggage claim, frequently establishing a relationship or making an unexpected connection. Once on a full elevator in Washington, D. C.’s Mayflower Hotel, liberal Vice President Walter Mondale came aboard. When Mondale left the elevator, Louis looked around at the others remaining and in a deadpan manner advised them “You better check your wallets.”
   One of his closest friends remembered his friendship and his personality as unique. This friend of almost five decades recalled aspects of his complex personality and varied interests: “Louis, always pleasurable company and a devotee to his friends, was a delightful eccentric who enjoyed his esoteric hobbies. Although retreating to books and bookish interests, he was a loving husband and father and an eager colleague of the few special friends whose minds delighted in whimsy, that very selective common denominator of very few.
   “To keep his use of German alive, Louis preferred to read an American book in its German translation. 
   “He was a member of the English-Speaking Union. At one of its international meetings Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was the guest speaker. Afterwards, during a standing ovation, he departed through the middle of the banquet room. As he passed, Louis reached out and shook hands with the prince. A member of the “protocol police” gasped and reprimanded Louis that commoners must not extend their hands to Royals, but wait for Royals to first extend their hands. Louis shrugged off the reprimand. 


    “Louis was a microbe hunter. It became his habit to take sterilized swabs with him to restaurants and physicians’ offices so that he might sample the invisible germs infesting silverware and pages of magazines. Under his microscope at home, he identified his finds and attempted to learn if they were endangering. He decided that no place was germ-free!
   “He owned some manner of scientific contraption (seismograph) he regularly consulted. It reported on the earth’s mild and large tremors. Earthquakes quivered even locally. He might telephone a friend and ask if he was aware that a small one had shaken that day in rural Madison County. 
   “Louis often denounced governmental crime, especially that of KGB rascals. He went to the Soviet Union three times, and on one of his trips he was convinced that he was being tracked and watched. Being very tall and Teutonic in appearance, he was a standout. He advised me that wherever he went in Moscow the same identifiable man was at every site. This was not an American’s paranoia but fact.

  “Louis collected international friends. Among these was the renowned English intellectual Malcolm Muggeridge. Another was the English writer and wit Lady Lucinda Lambton, a daughter of the Earl of Durham. She was a house guest and the honoree at a lavish party Louis and his wife Tippy hosted. In a room filled with sober Republicans, free-spirited Lady Lucy was a standout.
   “Louis found mental stimulation in reading The New Criterion. Its editor Roger Kimball drew out Louis’s highest praise both for intellect and for polished prose.
   “Louis did not smoke or imbibe wine or spirits. In youth and young manhood, he had had his share of each, and after giving them up, he never partook again.
   “Louis appreciated pulchritude. During one of his trips to Germany for an annual festival of classical music, he chanced to be seated next to a young beauty named Katharina. She was Swedish, and her boyfriend was a young conductor. She and Louis became friends, and once she visited the Lyells in Jackson. His wife and daughters laughingly joked that Katharina was “his Swedish girlfriend.” Her romance with the young conductor faded, and she married to a local man in Kazakhstan while stationed there in her governmental job.” 
   Louis’s emails ended with the following closing, which captures both his whimsy and his intellect. After his name and address, he listed three quotations, including one of his own, and a comment on emails which he would automatically send to trash: 
   “‘The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed theworld.’  Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
   “‘The decline of civilization began with the formation of the first committee.’  Louis J. Lyell (1925-      )


GRAND PAW WOO--- Louis loved his Granddogs, two Welsh Corgis: Rolo Chain, pictured above, and Taco Lampton, pictured below. 


   “‘Prison is a Socialist’s Paradise, where equality prevails, everything is supplied, and competition is eliminated.’ Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)
   “Emails with these words will automatically go to TRASH: line...artisanal…icon...legend...affordable...
bells and whistles...boomers...millennials...GenX/ ... Issues ... double/hunker down...push the envelope...proactive...reach out...epic...opt...diss...Ipersonally...fave...trope...going the pipeline...end of the the ballpark... touch base... foodie... laundry list...move on... entitlement...genre...litany...outside the box... hashtag...bucket list .... that being said...your back. (List to be continued; suggestions invited.)”
   Louis’s grandson Crawford termed him “a gentle giant and the most able-bodied nonagenarian I’ve ever known.” Such is true and captures his essence. This gentle giant, Louis James Lyell, changed his world and the world around him by not only an active life well-lived but also brilliant words well-said. 




GRAND PAW WOO--- Louis loved his Granddogs, two Welsh Corgis: Rolo Chain, pictured above, and Taco Lampton, pictured below. 


GRAND PAW WOO--- Louis loved his Granddogs, two Welsh Corgis: Rolo Chain, pictured above, and Taco Lampton, pictured below. 

Bravo and farewell, Louis Lyell!


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