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Navigating his way through a new life

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons now works at a Polk funeral home as part of a work release program and dreams of soon returning to St. Petersburg.

Published September 6, 2003

He was a nervous inmate who watched his back and learned the lessons of the prison yard. Don't make eye contact. Mind your own business. Do as the guards tell you. Always.

Far from his home on a St. Petersburg pulpit, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons said it took him many months to navigate the uncertain minefield of prison life. He found pleasures in small things: prayer, reading, letters. He avoided trouble.

"I was in a world I had never known before," Lyons said Friday. "I had to adjust to that, to the other men, to this new life. I was just a nervous wreck physically and mentally."

In his first interview since his April 1999 imprisonment on grand theft and racketeering charges, Lyons talked about reclaiming a community's respect and learning from the lessons of prison life.

The former president of the National Baptist Convention USA also confirmed that he wants to return to the ministry when released, perhaps in Pinellas.

A judge sentenced Lyons to 51/2 years following his conviction by a Pinellas jury for stealing $4-million, mostly from the convention's corporate partners.

Lyons is scheduled to be released Nov. 30 after receiving time off for good behavior.

He has no plans or potential employer, though he wants to return to St. Petersburg.

"Let's face it, I lived and worked for 27 years in St. Petersburg," Lyons said by telephone. "You can't turn your back on those kinds of roots."

He doesn't talk about returning to his former ministry at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where some in the congregation have speculated about his return.

"If the church voted to receive Dr. Lyons back in the fold, I would be ever so supportive of him," said the Rev. James Macon, an associate minister.

Macon conceded that it is unlikely the congregation could reach a consensus to return Lyons.

Lyons, 61, already has returned to St. Petersburg three or four times on eight-hour furloughs, accompanied by his daughter, Stephanie. She picks him up from the Bartow Work Release Center in Polk County and then returns him. About 25 friends called on Lyons when he visited his daughter's St. Petersburg home Aug. 30.

"People come, give me a handshake, a little hug," he said.

Lyons works 9-to-5 at the Coney Brothers Funeral Home in Lakeland as an $8-an-hour clerk and janitorial helper. It's been his job since June 30. He returns each night to Bartow prison guards.

"I'm healthy and basically okay," Lyons said. "I'm here doing my duty. Whatever it takes to keep the funeral home going."

He laughed, then said, "I don't go near the preparation room."

The job was arranged for him after a brief stint doing the same sort of work at a Lakeland church, where Lyons knew the pastor.

But Lyons said prison officials decided to move him because of the potential publicity of a fallen minister working at a church.

"I was very comfortable," Lyons said. "They said it was too high profile. But I'm not the one calling the shots. I'm not my own man."

Once a month, Lyons is allowed to attend Saturday services at a Lakeland church.

Lyons made himself sick with worry in the early months of his sentence. Each hour brought new fears of confrontations with streetwise, violent prisoners. Lyons wondered if they knew him, if the publicity of his case would cause problems.

Some inmates knew his name. But his fear slowly eased as he passed his time without incident, first in a Marion County facility and then in Polk.

He made friends, offering a minister's counsel in the prison yard.

"I found kindness, people who helped me out," Lyons said. "At the same time, I knew where I was. I didn't judge them, and they didn't judge me. I was careful about my talk and my walk. Sitting on prison benches, I shared the Gospel.

"I walked softly. You wanted friends, not enemies," he said. "If you even look at someone the wrong way, it can be sudden death."

He worked as a clerk in a prison library. He read health magazines and his Bible to pass the time. Lyons walked circles in recreation yards for exercise and reflection. He learned to garden at the work release center, tending vegetables.

"Man, I was proud of that garden," he said.

Lyons said he didn't buy a radio and watched little television with other inmates.

"I came in here to find out what was wrong with me," Lyons said. "I couldn't do that watching TV."

Lyons said he confronted his weaknesses in prison, and said he now knows he became too attached to a rich lifestyle.

"I know I need to be stronger morally," Lyons said. "I need to say "no' to myself and others and mean it and stick with it. I've not always been able to say "no."'

Lyons said he believes God has forgiven him. But he said he knows he must lead a good life in Pinellas, or wherever he sinks roots, to win back respect.

Lyons said his divorce earlier this year from wife Deborah, who could not be reached for comment, was an amicable split. Lyons said he needed to let go.

"She's taken so much abuse for me," he said. "I've lost five years in here. She's still young and strong and beautiful. She has plenty of time. I owed it to her to let her have a life back."

Lyons acknowledged being angry at his wife for starting the fire at the $700,000 Tierra Verde home he bought with Bernice Edwards, a Milwaukee embezzler who prosecutors say was Lyons' criminal accomplice. The arson sparked the scandal that toppled Lyons.

"But keep in mind, I was bitter about a lot of things," Lyons said. "I got over it and I'm free of it."

Lyons said he learned of Edwards' death of natural causes in May when another inmate told him. He hadn't heard from Edwards since his conviction.

"I thought it was a good thing not to be in touch," he said. "Nevertheless, I was shocked. But I felt a definite closure."

Lyons laughed when asked if the funeral home where he works is owned by the Loewen Group, one of the nation's largest funeral home operators and the biggest corporate victim in his criminal case.

He said it's privately owned.

"God," Lyons said, "I haven't thought of that stuff in years."

- Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

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