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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

 
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  • Deborah Lyons' life of triumph, turmoil

    By SUE LANDRY and STEPHEN NOHLGREN

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 10, 1997


    ST. PETERSBURG -- When the leaders of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church went hunting for a new pastor 25 years ago, they set their sights on Henry J. Lyons. He was well-educated and a gifted orator.

    What he lacked, though, was a wife.

    "One of the stipulations of being pastor was you had to be married," recalls church member Betty Andrews.

    Lyons, in fact, had been married twice. Two other women say he fathered their children. But none of those women would become the preacher's wife.

    To fill that role, Lyons returned to Cincinnati for the young woman he had met while studying there during the previous two years.

    She was smart, ambitious and, by age 24, already had shown she could deal with life's complexities.

    Though Deborah Louise Manuel gave birth to her first child at age 15 and her second at 17, she finished high school on time and was working her way through the University of Cincinnati when she and Lyons met.

    The Lyonses declined to comment, and friends said little about their private life.

    However, the public side of Deborah Lyons is clear. For 25 years in St. Petersburg she has been a woman of compassion and accomplishment. The accusation that she jealously torched a posh Tierra Verde house conflicts with her reputation.

    Parishioners and friends say the Deborah Lyons they know is confident, straightforward and a meticulous dresser -- not at all the sad-looking, disheveled woman depicted last month in a jailhouse photograph.

    "She is a very high-energy person," says Sarah Snyder, a friend and former co-worker. "She always projected this very, very professional image."

    Since finishing her undergraduate degree at Eckerd College in 1974, Lyons has counseled dropouts, managed housing projects, run summer job programs and helped run a welfare-to-work program. Along the way, she earned a master's degree in adult education at the University of South Florida and started working toward a doctorate.

    "She's a very sensitive person, a very caring person," says Askia Muhammad Aquil, who worked with her at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. "She's a person that is very concerned about helping improve the lives of people who are needy and less fortunate."

    Since 1994, Lyons has directed YouthBuild, a training and jobs program for unemployed dropouts -- although she has been on sick leave since her July 6 arrest.

    "She always had three jobs. The one she did as a professional, one being a mom and the third, her responsibilities at the church," says Barbara Butz, an assistant secretary in Florida's Department of Labor and Employment Security who worked with Lyons in the 1970s and '90s.

    Lyons, 49, always set high expectations for the young people she counseled, Butz says.

    "She was impatient with kids who wanted to make excuses. She would say, "I can't accept how you can't do that. I did it.' "

    A tough neighborhood

    Deborah Manuel grew up in a rough Cincinnati neighborhood, says Bessie Cooper Noble, who taught her in the sixth grade and has kept in touch since.

    Hays Elementary School and its connected junior and senior high schools were known for producing success under difficult circumstances.

    "We were very close to those kids," Noble remembers. "We were in the heart of the ghetto in downtown Cincinnati."

    Deborah Manuel's father, John H. Manuel, who died a few years ago, was one of the first black soldiers in the Marine Corps, Noble says. He and her mother, Katherine, divorced while Deborah was in elementary school, she says. John Manuel moved to New York; Katherine Manuel worked as a store clerk while raising Deborah and a sister and brother.

    All three Manuel children were talented and intelligent students, Noble says.

    In high school, Deborah Manuel faced another challenge. Her son, Derek, was born in 1963, the summer after her sophomore year. Her second child, Stephanie, was born in June 1965, the year she graduated. Noble remembers the father was a classmate.

    Having children didn't slow Deborah Manuel's drive. She immersed herself in social work after high school.

    For two years, she worked for an outreach program serving poor areas of Cincinnati. She organized youth programs and helped at a day-care program, her resume shows. Later, she entered the University of Cincinnati to study social work.

    One day, she picked up a lost notebook. Trying to return it, she called the name written inside -- Henry J. Lyons, a young pastor who had come to Cincinnati to study for his doctorate in divinity.

    They were married June 1, 1972, after Lyons returned from St. Petersburg looking for her. Though their marriage license states it was a first marriage for both of them, it was actually his third.

    Georgia records show Henry Lyons married Patricia Lucile Demons in 1966, divorced in 1969, and married Camilla Smith that same year. Deborah Manuel notarized a document for Lyons when he divorced his second wife two months before he married her.

    Lyons returned to St. Petersburg with an instant family. He later adopted Derek and Stephanie and is now listed on Ohio birth records as their father. Three years into the marriage, their daughter Vonda was born.

    But a West Palm Beach woman, now 33, says she, too, is Lyons' daughter and was lost in the shuffle.

    An estranged father

    Treva Carter Langley was born in October 1963.

    Her mother, Eartha Carter Watson, met Henry Lyons while they studied at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. When Watson discovered she was pregnant, she says, her parents arranged a meeting with Lyons' grandfather, who raised him, and stepgrandmother. The grandparents agreed to support Watson and the child until Lyons graduated, Watson says.

    Henry Lyons "was going to school. He wasn't working. We were the ones supporting (them)," says Minnie Lyons, the stepgrandmother.

    Langley, now an assistant school principal in Boca Raton, says she saw her father regularly when he visited his grandparents in Gainesville. "Our relationship was very good."

    But things were never the same after Henry and Deborah Lyons married. Langley would call her father's house in St. Petersburg, she says, and Deborah Lyons would yell and tell her not to call again.

    Watson, Treva Langley's mother, says Deborah Lyons sometimes called them.

    "She would get drunk and call my mother's house and curse my mother out. If my daughter answered, she would curse my daughter," Watson says.

    At the time, Treva Langley blamed Deborah Lyons for cutting her off from her father. Now, she's not sure what happened.

    "It was easier for me to believe that it was her," Langley says. "But of course, he didn't have to go along with her."

    In 1989, when she was married, Langley listed Lyons as her father in a newspaper wedding announcement. She last saw him a few years ago, she says, when he spoke at Bethune-Cookman. She wanted to introduce him to his granddaughter, Taylor, who was almost 2.

    Lyons was pleasant, suggesting she call his secretary to find a time when they could get together, Langley says. But then she mentioned a television newsmagazine called her about Lyons' campaign to become president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention USA.

    Even though she had not granted the interview, Langley says, "He just became outraged. I had never seen him in that state."

    Minutes later, "He just stormed out the door."

    Langley says she is no longer angry. "I'm not in a position where I need him now. I needed him as a child," she says. "Mainly right now, I'd like to establish a relationship just for the sake of my daughter."

    Lyons, 55, also fathered a son before he married Deborah Lyons, says 62-year-old St. Petersburg resident Ola Mae Daniels. She and Lyons were friends in Gainesville, where Lyons grew up, and reunited after they moved to St. Petersburg.

    In 1967, she says, she gave birth to Martin Lyons.

    For years, Henry Lyons gave her money for Martin, Daniels says, maybe $50 or $60 every two weeks or so. With this help, Martin went to private school and never lacked for clothes.

    While growing up, Martin saw his father only twice, Daniels says.

    "Martin would say, "Where's my daddy?'

    "I'd say, "He's in such and such a place.' Or "He's busy.'

    " "Nobody's that busy,' Martin would say." Martin Lyons, now in prison for felony possession of a firearm, listed Henry Lyons as his father on Department of Corrections records. He declined to comment.

    It has been 13 years since Daniels saw Henry Lyons, and she still thinks of him fondly. "He keeps you laughing all the time. He's all right with me."

    'Always there, friendly'

    As the Lyons family put down roots in St. Petersburg, Bethel Metropolitan grew. In 1981, to make way for the city's domed baseball stadium, the church moved from 10th Street near downtown to its current location on 26th Avenue S.

    As always, Deborah Lyons stayed active: She was a church deacon, ran youth groups and worked with grieving families, says associate pastor Alvin Miller.

    Many nights she left her job at the end of the day and worked hours at the church, friends say.

    "She was the loyal wife of the pastor, always there, always friendly," recalls Ed White, a former church member who also ran the housing authority when Deborah Lyons worked there.

    He and others say flattering things about how the Lyonses raised their children.

    "They were all good kids. They were bright and never got into any trouble," says Barbara Butz, the assistant labor secretary. "They were just good."

    During the past 15 years, Lyons often has left town on state and national church business. Associate pastors often preached in his absence.

    For the most part, Deborah Lyons stayed in St. Petersburg and tended to her work, children and the church.

    That was by choice, says Carolyn Cloud, who runs a day-care center at the church. "Deborah would tell you, "A lot of people would think that I would want to be running up and down the road with Doc, but I have things I want to do,' " Cloud recalls.

    Recent news accounts have questioned whether Lyons had romantic ties to other women. According to sheriff's deputies, Deborah Lyons said she set fire to the Tierra Verde house Lyons owns with convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards because she thought the two were having an affair.

    If Deborah Lyons harbored such worries, she kept them mostly to herself. Several people who describe themselves as close friends say she didn't discuss intimate family matters.

    "Mrs. Lyons and I were friends. We called each other sister," says Elnora Cooper, a longtime church member who also worked with Deborah Lyons at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. But, "We never got into our personal life with each other."

    Calvin Hicks was a member of Bethel Metropolitan when Henry Lyons arrived and a longtime deacon. He says Lyons often confided in him before the two fell out about 10 years ago.

    Lyons dominated his wife, Hicks says. According to Hicks and his wife, Juanita, Lyons repeatedly complained about his wife's drinking, particularly when Lyons was out of town.

    According to the Hickses, Deborah Lyons spent several weeks in a Central Florida rehabilitation clinic shortly before the Hickses left Bethel Metropolitan. They know, they say, because Henry Lyons complained that the clinic doctors were blaming him for his wife's drinking.

    "He came back and told us that they had the nerve to say (he was) the cause of that problem," Juanita Hicks recalls.

    Sheriff's deputies say Deborah Lyons told them she had been drinking the day of the Tierra Verde fire. Broken liquor bottles were found in the Mercedes she later crashed into a palm tree.

    Public records at the Pinellas County School Board, St. Petersburg Housing Authority and YouthBuild show she missed few days, showed up on time and performed well. Co-workers describe a woman who worked after hours if that's what it took to help a client.

    "They are youth that have become disenchanted with the education system. She works very very hard to turn their lives around. They are very fond of her," says Marjorie B. Stevens, a former supervisor who recommended Lyons to be YouthBuild's director.

    Delores Fletcher recently served with Lyons on the mayor's community task force dealing with civil unrest. Lyons provided the group a lot of information on how to get grants for job training.

    "Where other people were rushing out of there and getting in their cars to go home, she was one of the ones still working on things," Fletcher says.

    Lyons' arrest and the questions about her husband's personal life are heartbreaking, says Butz, a friend of 20 years.

    "Deborah is a good woman who tried very hard to give back to her community, be a good wife and play that . . . pastor's wife role," Butz says.

    "She deserves better."

      ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.