Benton resident honored on 100th birthday

Originally Published August 4, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 13, 2013 at 12:12 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Florrie Lyle blows out her birthday candles during a community celebration for her 100th birthday at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton. As a child, she rang a bell to tell the community the news about the end of World War I in 1918, and she was a teacher at the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s. She also taught career classes at Benton High School.

The conference room at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton was packed for what was expected to be a quiet birthday celebration. Does Florrie Lyle know everyone in town? She might — the retired teacher has had time to be introduced to the entire population.

Scores of friends, former students and well-wishers packed into the small room to honor and share a few words with Lyle on her 100th birthday.

Full of energy and excitement, the town’s new centenarian entered the library on the arm of her daughter Linnie Lyle. But once inside, Florrie Lyle made her way through the crowd aided only by her walker — speaking to people and exchanging hugs. Soon she was asked to take a seat of honor, while others shared pieces of her birthday cake.

The first to quiet the crowd and praise the birthday lady was Benton Mayor David Mattingly. He said the guest of honor was 100 years old, but just getting started.

“I hope so,” Lyle said in reply. “Thank you. I never expected to be honored in this great way.”

She told her audience that she had not wanted to stop teaching when school officials said she had to retire because she would soon turn 60, but they considered her too old to be teaching.

Mattingly said he will make a special presentation to Lyle at the Benton City Council meeting.

Next, Saline County Judge Lanny Fite, who was once a typing student of Lyle’s, read a proclamation making it Florrie Lyle Day in the county.

“As a member of Mrs. Lyle’s class in 1967, ” the county judge said, “I promise you, ma’am, that I typed this and never looked at the keys.”

After the ceremony, Fite admitted that his claim of not looking at the keyboard might have been exaggerated.

“I had her class in 1967, and the last year I gave her a ruler,” he said. “She used to rap our knuckles if she found us looking at the keys, and when I gave her the new ruler, I said she must have worn out at least one of them on me.”

During the party, Lyle said she missed the students after her retirement, especially the boys.

“I missed you, boys,” she said. “You ended up learning a lot you said you would never learn.”

In a September interview with Lyle, she said male students attending Benton High School during the 22 years she taught there never wanted to learn to type — after all, they were male.

“They told me they would have secretaries who would do their typing for them,” she said, “so they didn’t need to know how.”

However, during the Cold War years, when there was a military draft, she gave the boys who resisted her lessons a big incentive.

“I said that when they go into the Army, if they knew how to type, they would be needed for the paperwork and it would keep them off the front lines,” Lyle said.” Then most of them wanted to learn.

“And over the years, I’ve been told that my class made them able to use computers, saving a lot of careers and lives.”

Fite said his incentive to join a typing class was that “most of the students were girls.”

Lyle came to the attention of the county long before she was a teacher. A Benton native, she first alerted her neighbors on Nov. 11, 1918, when word came about the armistice that ended World War I. Lyle, then 5-year-old Florrie Wakenight, was given a bell by her mother and was told to ring it outside the school to spread the news.

Fite said the county invites her back every year to ring the same bell in honor of the Saline County residents who gave their lives in “the war to end all wars,” and all the American wars since then, as well.

“She comes every Memorial Day and Veterans Day to ring the bell,” Fite said. “It is a great tradition.”

During her birthday party at the library, Fite gave Lyle a coin cast to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Saline County Courthouse and another made for the 175th anniversary of the creation of Saline County.

Lyle also had a role in another part of America’s wartime history when she served as a teacher at a Japanese-American internment camp in Jerome from 1942 to 1944. She taught third-grade English to Japanese-American youngsters whose families were placed in the camp when they were removed from their homes across the United States at the beginning of World War II.

In a talk to the Saline County Historical Society last year, Lyle said she enjoyed her work and her “lovable” students.

“They seemed so understanding of being there, and they so wanted to be a part of this country,” she said “The children were very patriotic. They knew all the songs like ‘America the Beautiful’ and the songs of the Army, Navy, the Army Air Corps and the Marines.”

One of her students, Ester Kinta Noguchi, who met Lyle inside the barbed-wire enclosure, wrote to her, expressing her feelings for her teacher.

“I wanted to grow up to be like her, with her warmth and love without prejudice,” Noguchi wrote last year. “I guess I followed in her footsteps. I also became a teacher.”

At her party Tuesday, students and friends from Benton came to express their affection for Lyle as a teacher and as a resident of the community for 100 years.

“We are so excited by the turnout,” Linnie Lyle said. “We had a big crowd with friends from not only Benton, but from Colorado, Texas and Florida.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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