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Nelson loses mountaineer and ‘volunteer extreme’

Don Lyon, who shepherded the city’s museum into a new building and era as president of the Touchstones Nelson board, has died at 76.
Heather and Don Lyon

Don Lyon, who shepherded the city’s museum, archives, and art gallery into a new building and era as president of the Touchstones Nelson board, has died at 76.

Although he and wife Heather only moved to Nelson in 1997, Lyon had a significant impact on the city’s arts, cultural, and mountaineering scenes, volunteering his time and skills for many projects.

“When one works in the non-profit sector for a long time you meet many great volunteers who want to give back to a cause near and dear to them,” says Stephanie Fischer, who knew Lyon in several capacities. “And then sometimes you have the great fortune to meet people like Don.”

Friends uniformly spoke of his enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and refusal to be deterred by obstacles — figurative or literal.

Keenly interested in the history of BC and the Kootenays, Lyon joined the Nelson museum board when the organization was at a crossroads.

“We knew we had to do something,” he told the Daily News in 2001. ”The building we’re in [402 Anderson Street] is too small and it’s in a poor location so we had to move ahead somehow.”

The push became more urgent following a fire at the building that destroyed an historic boat and forced the artifacts into storage. Lyon became board president in 2004, and under his watch, a massive fundraising campaign was launched to turn the old city hall into the new museum.

Fischer, who was project manager of what became known as Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History, said Lyon brought “unprecedented energy” to its conception and creation.

“Everything and anything was possible, never a task too big or too small and he was always smiling, always in a splendid mood,” she says. “He made it a great pleasure to work under sometimes rather stressful situations. He was a leader and his commitment and enthusiasm to help create Touchstones Nelson was outstanding.”

Others echoed that assessment.

“Don was always the first to volunteer for hands on projects, to roll up his sleeves and do whatever needed to be done,” says Ed Mannings, who also served on the Touchstones board. “During periods when the challenges seemed overwhelming, Don always managed to inspire confidence in those around him to carry on.”

Ron Welwood recalls tackling several backbreaking and unpleasant projects with Lyon, such as dismantling steel shelving at the former David Thompson University library for use in the Touchstones archives. Stored off site, the shelves were covered in pigeon droppings.

Mountaineering firsts

Born in Vancouver, Lyon had a life-long passion for mountains and the outdoors. He belonged to the varsity outdoor club at the University of BC and was a life member of the Alpine Club of Canada. In 1959, he and five others climbed the east ridge of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak, and in doing so became the first all-Canadian team to reach the summit. Two years later, Lyon was part of a team that made the first ascent of the Pioneer ridge on Mount McKinley — North America’s highest peak.

In 1964, he joined the first Canadian expedition to the Himalayas, which climbed within reach of the summit of Sangemarmur, but was forced to turn back.

His exploits are recounted in Chic Scott’s Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering (the picture at right appeared in that book).

“Don played a prominent role in Canadian mountaineering when it was still in its early days,” Scott said. “His climbs of Mount Logan and Mount McKinley were very leading edge in their day, and his expedition to the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan was a real first, paving the way for those who would come later.”

Lyon spent a decade in construction and avalanche control at Rogers Pass before returning to the Lower Mainland, where he worked for the Burnaby school district for over 20 years until retiring to Nelson.

Friend Jerry Sussenguth, another Touchstones board member, called Lyon a “volunteer extreme.” As past president of the Friends of Pulpit Rock Society, Lyon was always grooming the popular trail or hauling materials for benches and steps in a “tireless effort” to make it more accessible, Sussenguth says.

“He could climb like a mountain goat and needed no trails. When it was decided a new flagpole should be installed on Elephant Mountain guess who volunteered to do it? He hauled cement, water and equipment all the way to the top, a yeoman’s feat at his age.”

The society’s Nancy Selwood says with only six people, each made a contribution: “Don made a big difference. He was fun to work with and motivated people into action. If anyone thinks retirement is about slowing down, they haven’t met Don.”

Even while hospitalized he dictated a page-long email of instructions and thoughts to fellow directors: “The diagnosis is myeloma cancer and it has left me mostly bedridden ... but I am still very much interested in continuing my work with the society.”

Another Pulpit director, Guy Woods, said besides his physical efforts, Lyon’s knack for fundraising was instrumental in getting improvements started: “He was very organized and made sure things got done.”

Lyon and his wife were avid skiers and could be seen regularly at Whitewater, Woods added.

Lyon also helped the Friends of the Library during their annual book sale (last year he cleaned and painted the society’s book sorting room) and co-founded the Kootenay History Interest Group as well as a local support group for people with celiac, an auto-immune disease.

On top of that, Fischer, now executive director of the Capitol Theatre, says Lyon and his wife often took tickets as part of the front-of-house crew. “He was tall enough to switch on the light on the beverage fridge without pulling out the step ladder, and always repaired some little thing here and there.”

Lyon died October 11 in Nelson, less than two months after his last hiking trip.

A celebration of his life will be held November 10. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Friends of Pulpit Rock Society — which in turn says the best tribute is “getting involved and making things happen in your community.”