Charlton Havard “Big Papa” Lyons, Sr

Charlton Havard “Big Papa” Lyons, Sr

Abbeville, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, USA
Death 8 Aug 1973 (aged 78)
Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, USA
Burial Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, USA
Memorial ID 54570612 · View Source
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Charlton Havard Lyons, Sr., also known as Big Papa Lyons (September 3, 1894 – August 8, 1973), was a Shreveport oilman who in 1964 waged the first serious Republican bid for the Louisiana governorship since Reconstruction. Lyons also made a strong but losing bid for the United States House of Representatives in a special election in 1961. He is sometimes considered the "father of the modern Republican Party in Louisiana."

1 From Abbeville to Shreveport
2 Marriage and associations
3 "Everybody can vote for Charlton Lyons"
4 37.5 percent was a record for a GOP candidate
5 Supporting Barry Goldwater
6 Lyons opposes Waggonner for Congress, 1961
7 Lyons passes the GOP baton to Treen
8 The death of Lyons
9 Honors and legacy
10 References

From Abbeville to Shreveport

Lyons was born in Abbeville, the seat of Vermilion Parish in south Louisiana, to a middle-class couple, Ernest John Lyons and the former Joyce Bentley Havard. He was reared in Melville in St. Landry Parish on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. The community was accessible not by railroad but by steamboat. As a teenager, Lyons worked in a Melville soda fountain and during two summers as a water boy for a railroad gang. He attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge but completed his bachelor of arts at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1916, he earned a law degree from Tulane and was admitted to the Louisiana bar. However, he lacked the funds at the time to establish his own law office.[1]

On August 28, 1917, Lyons married his college sweetheart, the former Marjorie Gladys Hall, who graduated from Newcomb College, the then-female counterpart to Tulane. She was an aspiring actress. In the spring of 1917, Maurice Fromkes painted a portrait of Marjorie Hall displayed at the Marjorie Lyons Playhouse (established 1956) at Centenary College in Shreveport. Mrs. Lyons was born on March 27, 1895, in Eagle Point near Chippewa Falls in Chippewa County, Wisconsin, to Henry P. Hall and the former Laura O'Rourke. Charlton and Marjorie Lyons were married until her death on July 11, 1971.

From 1916-1917, he was a teacher and an assistant principal at Glenmora High School in Glenmora in south Rapides Parish. From 1917-1918, Lyons was briefly the principal of Pollock High School in the community of Pollock in southeastern Grant Parish. He then entered the United States Army as a private near the end of World War I. Marjorie taught at Pollock High while her husband was away.[2]

The Lyonses relocated to Winnfield, center of the Long dynasty, where the legendary Huey Pierce Long, Jr., was rising to prominence. There Lyons practiced law for several years.[3]

The couple then relocated to Shreveport. Lyons entered the oil business through his "C.H. Lyons Petroleum". By the 1950s, Lyons had become so successful in his field that he was named president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. He was also a director of three other interest groups, Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the National Petroleum Council, and the National Association of Manufacturers. He operated a 240-acre cattle ranch west of Shreveport near Greenwood in Caddo Parish.[2]

Marriage and associations

Charlton and Marjorie Lyons had two sons: Charlton Havard Lyons, Jr. (born 1921), a Shreveport oilman, and Hall M. Lyons (1923-1998) of Lafayette and later Grand Isle, a former Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and an Independent nominee for the U.S. Senate. One of the Lyons daughters-in-law was Shreveport socialite and philanthropist Susybelle Lyons, later divorced from Charlton, Jr., who is now married to the former Peggy McClure.

Lyons was a member of the Masonic lodge, American Legion, Shreveport Country Club, and the Kappa Alpha and Phi Delta Phi fraternities. He was a member of the boards of both Tulane and Centenary. He was considered by friend and political rival alike as a man of great optimism and impeccable character. Virginia deGravelles of Lafayette, the Louisiana Republican national committeewoman from 1964-1968, called him a "wonderful, compassionate man." Charlton and Marjorie Lyons were Episcopalians.

"Everybody can vote for Charlton Lyons"

Lyons registered as a Democrat in 1915 at the age of twenty-one. In 1952, he had headed the "Democrats for Eisenhower" organization and welcomed future U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower during Eisenhower's visit to the newly-constructed Shreveport Regional Airport. Lyons officially switched to the Republican Party in 1960,[4] when he supported Richard M. Nixon for the presidency, rather than the Democrat John F. Kennedy. At the time of his party switch, Lyons said, "I am not leaving the Democratic Party -- for it had already deserted me."[5] He called the 1960 Democratic platform "socialism" and proclaimed that Kennedy/Johnson could not be the representative of the party of Thomas Jefferson because Jeffersn believed in limited government.[6] As a new member of the party, Lyons was soon named to succeed George W. Reese, Jr., of New Orleans as the Louisiana Republican national committeeman when Reese became the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate that year against Allen J. Ellender.

Lyons is best known for his trail-blzaing gubernatorial campaign waged in the winter of 1964. The Republican nominee posted billboards which declared that "Everybody Can Vote for Charlton Lyons," for he had to inform Louisiana's Democratic voters, then more than 98 percent of the registrants, that they had a choice in the general election that year-—a phenomenon widely unknown in Louisiana between the Reconstruction Era and 1964. The party's 1960 nominee, Francis Grevemberg, also a former Democrat, had finished with only 17 percent of the vote.[7] Democratic nominee John McKeithen at first warned voters that they were required to vote for him as the Democratic nominee because their voting in a party primary carried with it a loyalty oath to the eventual nominee. Lyons, however, cited Section 671, Title 18 of Louisiana Revised Statutes which states that voters are free to support any candidate of their choice in a general election.[8]

McKeithen noted that he, at 45, was a generation younger than the 69-year-old Lyons. It was a rare use of age as a campaign issue in Louisiana politics. The Democrat also claimed that the GOP consisted of "a handful of men who are attempting to take over this state government [and] are counting on your [Democrat voters] staying home on March 3."[9]Lyons said that his gubernatorial candidacy was predicated on "preserving for the young people the same opportunities I had to start with nothing . . . and build success for themselves . . . "[10]

Early in 1964, Ronald Reagan, former host of CBS's General Electric Theater, came to Louisiana to campaign for Lyons. At the time, Reagan did not fly and came to Louisiana by train, a trip that required several days. He was accompanied by his wife, Nancy. The stops for Lyons occurred ten months before Reagan delivered his October 27, 1964 address, "A Time for Choosing", on national television to promote Barry Goldwater's presidential bid against Lyndon B. Johnson. The speech was credited with catapulting Reagan into the vanguard of national politics. Like Lyons, Reagan was a former Democrat who had switched party allegiance in 1962. Charlton Lyons, Jr., said he cannot recall how his father met Reagan but believes the two had been friends for several years before the 1964 campaign.

McKeithen was outraged over Reagan's visit and urged the actor of film and television "to return to Hollywood and do something about the standing immorality and communism that flourishes in that city." McKeithen predicted that Louisiana Democrats would "repel this second invasion by the carpetbaggers." McKeithen portrayed Lyons as the beneficiary of "special interests" and "a group of millionaires." Lyons would "help the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer," wailed McKeithen. Lyons, however, denied that most of his supporters were even wealthy. "A Victory for Lyons Will Electrify the Nation", said one of the candidate's brochures. Two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California and hence became a gubernatorial colleague of McKeithen's.

McKeithen resented having to face a Republican challenger after he survived two Democratic primaries. He called for an end to two Democratic primaries followed by a general election with Republicans. A similar reaction by 1971 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Edwin Edwards evoked the state's switch to a nonpartisan blanket primary, which as of 2010 the state continues to use in state (but no longer federal) elections.

The Louisiana media gave wide coverage to the McKeithen-Lyons battle. Adras LaBorde, managing editor of the Alexandria Daily Town Talk,' took advantage of the state's first heated Democrat-Republican campaign for governor and covered the election widely in his column "The Talk of the Town". Both Shreveport papers, The Times and the now defunct Journal, owned by Douglas F. Attaway and edited by the conservative journalist George W. Shannon, covered nearly every aspect of the campaign. Both papers endorsed Lyons and later in the year Goldwater.

Lyons developed a cadre of young followers in the Republican Party. He designated George Joseph Despot (1927-1991), another Shreveport oilman, and Certified Public Accountant George A. Burton, Jr., as his gubernatorial campaign co-chairmen, mostly because it was Despot and Burton who pleaded with Lyons to enter the race. Burton (born 1926), a lifelong Louisiana Republican, described Lyons in glowing terms: "a great American. . . a friend of impeccable integrity." Lloyd E. Lenard, later a Republican member of the Caddo Parish Commission (formerly called Police Jury) from 1984-1996 and an author, flew around the state with "Papa" Lyons, as he called him, and interviewed Lyons for radio and newspapers.[11]

37.5 percent was a record for a GOP candidate

Lyons lost to Democrat McKeithen in the March 3, 1964, general election, but his 297,753 ballots (37.5 percent), helped to pave the way for the victory in Louisiana that November of the Goldwater-Miller presidential electors. McKeithen polled 469,589 votes (60.7 percent). (The last of the States' Rights Party gubernatorial nominees in Louisiana history, Thomas S. Williams from the town of Ethel in East Feliciana Parish, received 6,048 votes, or 1.8 percent).

Lyons polled majorities in five parishes, Caddo, Bossier, Claiborne, Lincoln, and De Soto, all in north Louisiana. He polled more than 47 percent in East Baton Rouge and Webster parishes. In La Salle Parish, which had supported Richard Nixon in 1960 and Taylor W. O'Hearn for the U.S. Senate in 1962, Lyons drew less than 30 percent of the vote, a factor explained by the geographic location of La Salle near McKeithen's native Caldwell Parish.

In victory, McKeithen was magnanimous toward his rival: "My opponent waged a tremendous campaign for a man of his age. I am glad I don't have to run against him again." The Shreveport Journal observed that the Republican vote was "not so much a vote against John McKeithen, who had already taken the district in Democratic balloting, as it was an expression of endearment for a man who is regarded as one of our most outstanding citizens."

Billy James Guin, Sr. (born 1927), later the Shreveport public utilities commissioner who had run for the state legislature from Caddo Parish on the Lyons ticket, described Lyons as "a good man who wanted to change the political complexion of Louisiana. He built the Republican Party in its present form. He was a great campaigner, and there was much grassroots fervor. When he began to make inroads, the sheriffs and other Democratic officeholders proceeded to block his election."

Lyons' strength was reflective of that of former Little Rock Mayor Pratt C. Remmel, the 1954 Republican gubernatorial nominee in neighboring Arkansas. Remmel—-a decade before Lyons—-also polled 37 percent of the vote in his hard-fought race against the Democrat Orval Eugene Faubus and won six of the state's seventy-five counties. Remmel paved the way for the election twelve years later of Winthrop Rockefeller. Lyons was the forerunner for David C. Treen, fifteen years later the first modern-day Republican to have been elected governor of Louisiana.

Supporting Barry Goldwater

In 1963, Charlton Lyons and the Baton Rouge businessman James H. Boyce, then a nominal Democrat, went with a group of mostly Republican conservatives to urge Goldwater to seek the presidency. Goldwater was at first reluctant to take on the challenge but nevertheless declared his candidacy early in 1964, when the Democrat Lyndon Johnson had been president for less than two months and the heavy favorite for a full term of his own.

Boyce thereafter switched parties and became the campaign treasurer for the Lyons gubernatorial bid. He would serve as state party chairman from 1972-1976. In that campaign, McKeithen had accused Lyons of being pre-committed to the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, and he incorrectly predicted that the nominee would be, not Senator Goldwater, but then Governor Governor Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller of New York, considered the liberal, internationalist candidate. McKeithen said that he would keep his options open for the 1964 presidential election. As it turned out, he remained neutral in that race, but the state's two popular Democratic senators, Allen Ellender and Russell B. Long, both supported the Johnson-Humphrey ticket.[12]

No sooner had the gubernatorial race ended than Lyons resumed working for Goldwater's nomination as president. As state party chairman, Lyons headed the state delegation to the national convention held in San Francisco's Cow Palace. At twenty-five, Morton Blackwell of Baton Rouge was the youngest elected delegate to the 1964 convention. Lyons's party vice chairman was Harriet Belchic, a Shreveport civic and political leader reared in Winnfield who was the first woman to have received both bachelor's and master's degrees from LSU in the field of geology. Her husband, Dr. George Belchic was also active in state Republican causes.

Lyons also recruited congressional candidates in 1964: David C. Treen of New Orleans, in a second race against Hale Boggs; William Stewart Walker of Winnfield, in a challenge to Speedy O. Long in the since defunct 8th district; Robert Angers of Lafayette, who opposed Edwin E. Willis of St. Martinville in the 3rd district, and Floyd O. Crawford of Baton Rouge, making a race against James H. Morrison. While Goldwater defeated Johnson in Louisiana and won some parishes by 5-1 margins or better, particularly in the northern tier, none of the congressional candidates fared better than Walker's 46 percent showing against Speedy Long.

Lyons opposes Waggonner for Congress, 1961

Three years before his gubernatorial campaign, Lyons ran in a special election for the Fourth Congressional District seat based in the northwestern quadrant of the state. A vacancy developed with the death of long-term Democratic Representative Thomas Overton Brooks of Shreveport.[13]

In a campaign advertisement, the Republicans proclaimed that "A Vote for Charlton Lyons for Congress Is a Vote Against the New Frontier", the domestic program of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.[14] Lyons declared that the "election of a Republican from this district would have a profound impact upon the rest of the nation and upon Democratic congressmen in the South."[2] He vowed if elected not to "trade votes" with colleagues so that each obtain could obtain passage of measures they prefer. "I think the trading of votes is one of the reasons this country is in such bad shape today. . . . When a central government becomes all powerful, a dictator inevitably takes over."[2]

Lyons was considered a trade protectionist. In an advertisement underwritten by his friend George Burton, Lyons opposed the "vast influx of imported products which are flooding the country" and causing unfair competition to American manufacturers.[15]

Lyons made a much stronger showing in the northwest Louisiana district, but the seat went to Joe Waggonner, from Plain Dealing in Bossier Parish, a conservative Democrat who had once been president of the segregationist Louisiana Citizen's Council. Waggonner held the seat until he retired in 1979. Waggonner (1918-2007) had already announced that he would challenge Brooks for renomination in 1962 because of Brooks' vote in 1961 to enlarge the membership of the House Rules Committee. This permitted Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas to add new liberal representation to the panel which had long been chaired by the Virginia conservative Howard W. Smith.

Lyons claimed that victory by Waggonner would be interpreted as support for Kennedy-Johnson policies. Waggonner claimed that the election of Lyons would mean increased importance being placed on black bloc voting through the establishment of a two-party system. In the special election, Lyons won his own Caddo Parish with 58.7 percent, but district-wide, the totals were 28,250 votes (45.5 percent) for Lyons and 33,892 (54.5 percent) for Waggonner. After the Lyons campaign of 1961, no other Republican opposed Waggonner, who was customarily reelected without opposition.

In 1988, a Republican, Jim McCrery, a Shreveport native who grew up in Leesville in Vernon Parish, won the district in another special election created by the election of Congressman Buddy Roemer of Bossier Parish, as governor. With relatively little difficulty McCrery remained in Congress until 2009, when he was succeeded by Republican John C. Fleming.[16]

Lyons passes the GOP baton to Treen

Lyons had stepped down as party chairman in 1968 and was succeeded by his friend and fellow oilman Charles deGravelles, Jr., of Lafayette. Charles' wife, Virginia Wheadon deGravelles, an Alexandria native, had been the national committeewoman from 1964-1968.

In 1972, Lyons supported Republican gubernatorial candidate David Treen of suburban New Orleans even though Lyons's younger son, Hall Lyons, was running for governor on the American Independent Party ticket, an organization founded in 1968 by Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, Jr.. Hall Lyons withdrew from the race and endorsed Treen, who lost the general election to Democrat Edwin Washington Edwards.[17] Unlike his son, Charlton Lyons had opposed Wallace, who had won Louisiana in 1968. Charlton Lyons supported the Richard M. Nixon-Spiro T. Agnew elector slate, which fared poorly in the state. Lyons had also held most in the Louisiana delegation for Nixon at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, despite Lyons's personal friendship with Ronald Reagan, who launched a brief presidential run on the Monday of the national convention.

The death of Lyons

The gravestone of Charlton Havard Lyons, Sr., at Shreveport's Forest Park Cemetery.
The gravestone of Marjorie Hall Lyons at Shreveport's Forest Park Cemetery.
The gravestone of Louisiana politician and businessman Hall McCord Lyons at Shreveport's Forest Park Cemetery.Lyons died some eight months after David Treen had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the reconfigured Third Congressional District, which included parts of suburban New Orleans.[18] Thus Lyons lived just long enough to witness the first glimpse of his dream of a two-party system for traditionally Democratic Louisiana.

The Lyonses are interred in the family plot at Forest Park Cemetery off St. Vincent Avenue in Shreveport. Lyons' only sister, Sally, was married to Thomas M. "Tom" Logan. The Logans are buried at Forest Park across the street from the Lyons-Hall plot.

Honors and legacy

Lyons received "Humanitarian of the Year" award at the Abbeville Dairy Festival, his hometown.
The Charlton Lyons papers (covering 1942-1973) are held at the archives of Louisiana State University.

He established the Marjorie Lyons Theater at Centenary College in Shreveport in memory of his wife and her theater interests.
On January 30, 2010, Lyons, along with former Republican state chairman William "Billy" Nungesser, was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield, where he practiced law as a young man.[19]


1.^ Charlton H. Lyons, Jr., Songs I Heard My Mother Sing, Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2008, ISBN: 978-1-4343-4059-7, pp. 72-73
2.^ a b c d Lyons congressional advertisement, Minden Herald, December 7, 1961, p. 10
3.^ Lyons Family « The Lyons Family
4.^ "Republican Contender for Governor Was Democrat for Forty-five Years", Minden Herald, January 16, 1964, p. 13
5.^ Ray Pierre, "David v. Goliath -- Southern Style", Minden Herald, February 27, 1964, p. 2-B
6.^ Minden Press, January 16, 1964
7.^ See Francis Grevemberg and Louisiana gubernatorial general election 1960.
8.^ Minden Press-Herald, February 13, 1964, p. 7
9.^ Minden Herald, February 22, 1964, p. 12
10.^ Ray Pierre, Minden Press, February 27, 1964
11.^ Secure Server
12.^ Louisiana's electoral votes went to Goldwater, who had the open backing of several prominent elected Democrats, including former Governors Sam Houston Jones of Lake Charles and Robert F. Kennon of Baton Rouge (formerly Minden), Mayor W.L. "Jack" Howard of Monroe, and Lieutenant Governor C. C. "Taddy" Aycock of Franklin in St. Mary Parish.
13.^ In the 1960 general election, Brooks had defeated Republican Fred C. McClanahan, Jr., (1918-2007) of Shreveport by a wide margin, 48,286 (74.2 percent) to 16,827 (25.8 percent). In 1956, Brooks had defeated then Republican Calhoun Allen, later a Democratic mayor of Shreveport.
14.^ Minden Herald, Minden, Louisiana, November 9, 1961, p. 2
15.^ Minden Herald, November 23, 1961, p. 9
16.^ from 1993 to 1997 much of the 4th district switched, along with McCrery's representation, to the 5th district. From 1997 onward the boundaries largely reverted to where they were prior to 1993. In 1991, Roemer converted to Republican affiliation.
17.^ In 1966, Hall Lyons ran for Congress in the Lafayette-based district, but he lost to veteran Democrat Edwin Willis (1904-1972), a somewhat moderate Southern Democrat who supported President Johnson. Willis was defeated for renomination in the 1968 Democratic primaries by a more conservative Democrat, Patrick T. Caffery. See also note on Treen infra.
18.^ Treen had run three unsuccessful but increasingly threatening races against Louisiana's 2nd congressional district representative, Democrat Hale Boggs, whose moderate voting record was symbiotic with his rise in the Democratic leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives. In an example of the law of unintended consequences, the overwhelmingly Democratic Louisiana legislature then redrew the district lines, placing Treen's precinct into the neighboring 3rd district, represented by conservative Democrat Patrick T. Caffery of Lafayette. Not long after the change, however, Caffery signaled his intention to retire from Congress. Treen had name recognition throughout the district and, although a Methodist, was politically at home with the 3rd district's Roman Catholic electorate, whom he continued to represent until being elected governor in 1979.
19.^ "Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame". Retrieved January 14, 2010.
"Charlton H. Lyons," A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 1 (1988), pp. 528-529
Shreveport Journal, March 3-4, 1964
Perry Howard, Political Tendencies in Louisiana, LSU Press, 1971
Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, March 6, 1964

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  • Created by: Billy Hathorn
  • Added: 6 Jul 2010
  • Find A Grave Memorial 54570612
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Charlton Havard “Big Papa” Lyons, Sr (3 Sep 1894–8 Aug 1973), Find A Grave Memorial no. 54570612, citing Forest Park East Cemetery, Shreveport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, USA ; Maintained by Billy Hathorn (contributor 3687672) .