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My father, Gen. William Lyon, led an achievement filled life, rising to levels in the U.S. Air Force and business that few have ever accomplished. He was in some ways larger than life even though for those who knew him, he was very human.
When I was in the second grade, the teacher asked us who our heroes were. Some said George Washington or Spiderman. I said my dad because he was the best example of who I thought I should grow up to be.
Dad connected with people. He loved to visit and tell a story, asking me before he started if I had heard it before. He would often ignore my yes answer to weave a story that included subtleties I hadn’t noticed before.
My father had a wonderful sense of humor, sometimes breaking out into giggles. During the many speeches he gave over the years, he always started with a joke, which often surprised audiences expecting something quite different from a military man.
He didn’t have a middle name, quipping that his parents couldn’t afford one. He made sure I received one because he never wanted me to be a “Junior.” Also, he didn’t want to be a “Senior.”
Portrait of Vitality
Dad, who loved flying, often reminded my mother, Willa Dean, of the disclaimer he gave her before they were married, “Don’t ever ask me to quit flying, and don’t ever ask me to retire.” He continued to pilot corporate jets well into his 80s, often amazing professional pilots with the smoothness of his takeoffs and landings.
He was profoundly patriotic, and he founded the Lyon Air Museum to make sure that the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation in WWII would never be forgotten.
My father had so much vitality. On the tennis court, he dove for a ball which shocked everyone because he was 83 years old. He emerged a little bloodied, but then continued playing. I finally beat him for the first time when he was 90. One of the favorite memories of Angelina, my eldest daughter, was playing doubles with him when she was 9.
Dad loved automobiles, particularly the prewar classics he saw around Los Angeles growing up. His absolute favorite was the Duesenberg J 101 that my mother gave him for his 60th birthday party. He also enjoyed the 1941 Ford Super Deluxe that we gave him for his 90th birthday. It was almost identical to the car his parents bought him when he graduated high school. He said it made him feel 18 again.
He did not view himself as the smartest guy in the room, and in fact struggled with academics as a child, but my dad was a fighter. He believed that if he cared more about something than anyone else, his determination could win the day. My father credited most of his accomplishments to perseverance, or as he would say, “Staying the Course.”
Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father went to enlist in the Navy as a pilot. He failed the medical because he had a deviated septum and even after a surgery to correct it, he failed again. Rather than give up, he went to commercial aviation school, qualifying him to instruct military pilots for the war. Later, he became a ferry pilot as a warrant officer with the Army Air Corps where he flew many different types of aircraft to destinations all over the world. He finally received a full commission in the Air Force Reserve after WWII ended and his military career took off from there.
He would often advise others who wished to be successful to volunteer for a mission or an assignment because that creates exposure and the opportunity to learn.
Portrait of Volunteering
My mom and dad became involved with more than just writing a check for multiple charities. He was the founding chairman of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation and a founding board member of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the first chairman to succeed Henry Segerstrom.
At a luncheon in 2008 where Dad was giving a speech to more than 500 people, he had a cardiac event that dropped him to the floor. A Huntington Beach police detective and fireman who were in the audience immediately started CPR and saved his life. Ironically, that detective had come from a troubled home and had spent time at Orangewood Children’s Home, an experience which he credits with saving his life. That day, the detective repaid the favor to my father, giving us another 11 great years with him.
What continues to surprise me is the number of individuals he and my mother have helped simply because they could, without anyone else ever knowing. My parents quietly put several students through college without any fanfare. They used their network to solve community problems and were not motivated by who got the credit. Dad exemplified the adage: the more you do, the more you can do.
Portrait of a Gentleman
My father was a gentleman. He believed in doing the right thing and acting with integrity. He did what he said he was going to do and did not tolerate those who were not true to their word.
Dad was a true patriarch, the backbone of our family for as long as I can remember. He was always the one who supported everyone else when they were ill or having trouble or needed advice. This was also true with aspiring entrepreneurs he met for the first time.
He was a great dad. Emotional support, financial support, moral support—he was always there. This is the legacy I intend to pass on as I strive to be that rock of reliability for my children.
I greatly appreciate the OCBJ giving me this opportunity to provide more color on my dad as a person (see article, page 1). He left a résumé a mile long filled with several lifetime’s worth of accomplishments.
What I admire him most for was the foundation of love he provided our entire family. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten.
Editor’s Note: Bill H. Lyon was executive chairman of William Lyon Homes, which was bought in February for $2.5 billion, including $950 million of equity, by Taylor Morrison Home Corp.