Bell silenced as Benton loses historic figure

By Wayne Bryan Published March 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Florrie Wakenight Lyle, who turned 100 in August, rang a bell as part of a Veteran’s Day ceremony at the Saline County Courthouse in Benton. Lyle’s bell ringing has been a part of many patriotic observances in Saline County.

BENTON — The residents of Benton and Saline County lost a link to history Tuesday with the death of Florriedeen Wakenight Lyle at age 100.

Lyle, who publicly celebrated her 100th birthday in August, died Tuesday.

For 22 years, she taught typing at Benton High School, influencing two generations of students. Lyle also symbolized one American holiday to local residents, becoming a traditional part of Veterans Day by ringing a bell given to her by her mother on the first Armistice Day in 1918.

“This is the bell my mother gave me that day in Searcy, and she said to go out and ring it, that we had gotten word the war was over,” Lyle told the crowd gathered at the Saline County Courthouse for the holiday in 2013. “This is the bell my mother used to ring to call me in for supper. I ring this bell for all the veterans and all you dear people.”

The ringing of the bell by Lyle was the highlight of many patriotic observances in Saline County. County Judge Lanny Fite said at Lyle’s 100th-birthday celebration that the county invited her back every year to ring the bell.

“It is a great tradition,” Fite said at the time.

During Lyle’s birthday party at the library, the county judge gave her 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.

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

“She has always served the community as an ideal example,” Fite read from his proclamation that day. “Her source of pride was sharing her patriotism and teaching children.”

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

Her 100th birthday party in Benton drew more than 200 people into a small meeting room at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library. Friends, former students and well-wishers were packed into the small room to honor and share a few words with Lyle on her birthday.

Along with being honored by former Benton High School students, Lyle was honored and will be remembered by former students from all over the nation because of her role in another part of America’s wartime history.

She taught third grade for three years at the federal relocation center outside Jerome in southeast Arkansas. Her students were Japanese-American children, most born in this country, whose families had been gathered up by the Army and locked up during the World War II.

Seventy-two years ago, Florrie Wakenight was a young teacher in her hometown of Searcy, and her boyfriend, Tom Lyle of Pine Bluff, was working as a banker in Little Rock. The war had been underway for only a few months when her future husband suggested that the couple join a group that would operate an internment camp of Japanese-Americans being moved to Arkansas.

In Sept. 20, 2012, Lyle, along with her daughter Linnie Lyle, told of her experience teaching in the camps during a meeting of the Saline County History and Heritage Society.

“Attempt to walk in the shoes of the Japanese-Americans before Pearl Harbor. The Great Depression was ending, and things were getting better,” Linnie read. “Then you are told you will have to leave. All you can take with you is one suitcase per person. You give away your pets and sell your home and car for pennies on the dollar. You have no ties to the emperor, but you are burning family pictures from Japan because you are ashamed of being connected with your heritage.”

In August 1942, Lyle and Tom moved to the camp, which was still being completed. Two camps were built in the Arkansas Delta to hold the families coming from the west. The two Arkansas camps, in Jerome and Rohwer, were the only internment facilities east of the Rockies for Japanese-American families.

“In November, they came in one train at a time with the blinds closed so they could not see where they were or where they had been,” Lyle said.

Years later, one of the children arriving on those trains, Ester Kinta Noguchi, who would be in Lyle’s class, wrote that Lyle was instrumental in getting warmer clothing for the evacuees who arrived from California and Hawaii in shorts and sandals.

In an email, Noguchi expressed her feelings for her third-grade teacher whom she met inside the barbed-wire enclosure.

“I wanted to grow up to be like her, with her warmth and love without prejudice,” Noguchi wrote. “She was a model for me and all who knew her. I guess I followed in her footsteps. I also became a teacher.”

Lyle called her students lovable.

“They seemed so understanding of being there, and they so wanted to be part of this country. If flowers were blooming, they brought me flowers, and if they were sent any fruit, they shared with me,” Lyle said. “The children were very patriotic. They knew all the songs, like ‘America the Beautiful’ and all the songs of the Army, Navy, the Army Air Corps and the Marines.”

The camp in Jerome held as many as 8,497 people, including 2,483 school-age children. Lyle and Tom stayed at the camp until it closed on June 30, 1944, then went to Arizona to work at another relocation center on the Gila River Apache Reservation until the end of the war.

“One fact to remember is that they were Americans, like you and me,” Lyle said in her 2012 talk in Benton. “Their lives were interrupted, but they still served their country.”

When the last of the camps was closed, the Lyles moved to Benton in 1946, when Tom resumed his work in banking and Lyle joined the faculty at Benton High School.

In 2005, Lyle was honored in Los Angeles by the Japanese-American Museum for her years as a teacher in the camps.

In 2008, she was recognized as “an outstanding woman in America’s history by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A graveside service for Lyle is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Dalewood Cemetery in Pine Bluff.

The family has requested that memorials be made to the Saline History and Heritage Society; the Girl Scouts Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas; and the Herzfeld branch of the Saline County Library.

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

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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