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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Lyon legacy

by Rex Nelson | March 5, 2023 at 2:20 a.m.

On Jan. 26 at The Breakers, a posh Palm Beach hotel, Arkansas' Jane Lyon was in the spotlight. The occasion was the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony for thoroughbred racing.

Lyon's Kentucky farm bred Flightline, and she was part of the ownership group for the landslide winner of the award for horse of the year.

Flightline captured the attention of the racing world last year, going undefeated in three Grade 1 races with an average margin of victory of more than 11 lengths. The horse earned more than $4 million despite missing almost half of the year due to injury.

Flightline won the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont in New York in June by six lengths, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in California in September by more than 19 lengths and the Breeders' Cup Classic at Kenneland in Kentucky in November by more than eight lengths.

Jane and her late husband, Frank Lyon Jr., purchased Summer Wind Farm in Georgetown, Ky., in 1995. At the time, they had just two geldings, and neither was a thoroughbred. But Jane, who has a deep love of horses, has since grown the farm to more than 1,000 acres. Summer Wind is also the home of retired horses.

Jane has written two children's books, along with daughter Karen Bailey, about rescued horses: "Skipingo Home: A Thoroughbred's Second Chance" and "Primerica: A Home for the Brave." Profits from both books benefit thoroughbred rescue operations.

In a 2019 feature story on Jane, Kenneland's magazine noted: "She has helped deliver a foal while wearing a cocktail dress, raised wolf hybrid pups as pets, written books and poetry, and experienced breathtaking encounters with lions in the remote wilds of Africa. At home she can whip up a sumptuous dinner for 10 without ever looking at a recipe, serving everything from lobster and roasts to homemade chicken pot pies and peach cobblers while lighting up her kitchen with the warmth of her laughter.

"She loves to kiss her racehorses before they compete, leaving vivid lipstick marks on their muzzles, and she enjoys retelling the joke that her mares and foals are afflicted with 'carrot toxicity.'

"A petite blonde who speaks with the soft accent of her Arkansas roots, Jane Lyon is not the average Kentucky breeder by any measure. The plotline of her storybook life features the self-described daredevil of a young girl who could outrun the boys at school and scoop the biggest crayfish out of nearby creeks, dedicating herself to making her dreams of raising horses in the Bluegrass come true."

Frank Jr., a well-known Arkansas businessman and sportsman, died in November 2015 at age 74. In last Sunday's column, I wrote about Wingmead, the Lyon family's duck-hunting estate south of DeValls Bluff. Many consider it to be the preeminent waterfowl retreat in the country.

When Frank Jr. died, Bill Bowden wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Frank Lyon Jr. survived crocodiles in the Belgian Congo and a cancer diagnosis in 1987. . . . A Little Rock native, Lyon had a passion for hunting, conservation and philanthropy. At 14, Lyon spent three weeks living with missionaries in what was then the Belgian Congo. There, he slept in a pup tent and developed an affection for Africa. At one point, Lyon found himself sitting in a tree to keep crocodiles at bay while Africans dressed the hippopotamus he had just shot in the river below.

"Lyon returned to Africa numerous times. It was his favorite place to vacation. Lyon's father, Frank Lyon Sr., began supporting Arkansas College in Batesville in the 1940s. His son followed suit, serving for almost 30 years on the college's board of trustees and as chairman of the board for four years. In 1994, Arkansas College was renamed Lyon College to honor the family for its financial support, although the modest Lyons initially didn't like the idea."

Frank Jr. married Jane in 1977.

In an interview about her success in the thoroughbred breeding industry, Jane said: "What I went through to get there was a lifelong battle--a battle both emotionally and philosophically, in a way, with my husband. He granted me my wish for a farm in the Bluegrass, but he didn't understand it. He was such a good businessman that breeding these horses didn't make sense, and, frankly, it doesn't a lot of times.

"I didn't just want to raise horses and sell them--I wanted them raised the very best way I could possibly raise them, and that was a big learning curve. I made a lot of mistakes--and I still make them. It was frustrating and hard."

At Frank Jr.'s funeral, a speaker said: "Frank didn't love horses, but he sure loved Jane."

During my visit to Wingmead, longtime Little Rock investment banker Charlie Whiteside, one of Frank Jr.'s best friends, told me that Frank Sr. had similar misgivings about wasting money when his son purchased the farm at auction in 1976.

Frank Sr., a brilliant businessman, was born at Camden in 1910. He attended the University of Alabama. When Frank Jr. was born in 1941, his father was a traveling salesman for General Foods Corp.

In 1942, Frank Sr. began the Frank Lyon Co. as an electrical appliance distributor. A decade later, he was awarded the RCA franchise for Arkansas. He later would own RCA and Whirlpool distributorships for large parts of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Kansas.

Frank Sr.'s most savvy move was convincing Sam Walton to give him the distribution rights for every RCA television Walmart sold. The Lyon family retained those rights until 1989.

Bowden said of Frank Jr.: "As the only child, he grew along with the family's holdings. Over the next four decades, the Lyon family would invest in downtown Little Rock commercial buildings, including the Worthen Bank and First Federal Savings & Loan buildings. They acquired, among other things, a controlling interest in Twin City Bank in North Little Rock."

Frank Jr. attended public schools in Little Rock until his senior year of high school. Following the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis, Little Rock schools were closed for the 1958-59 school year. Many Little Rock families sent their sons and daughters to live with friends elsewhere in the state.

Frank Sr. had served on the Arkansas College board with Arkadelphia lawyer Bill McMillan. Frank Jr. went to live with the McMillan family. The one thing Frank Jr. and I had in common was that we both were graduates of Arkadelphia High School.

Frank Jr. attended Davidson College in North Carolina for two years before transferring to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for his junior and senior years. He served in the U.S. Army after graduation and then earned a Harvard MBA.

Frank Jr. had been selling Whirlpool appliances for a year when his father learned that the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Arkansas was for sale. The Lyon family bought it, and Frank Jr. became CEO at age 28. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1987.

"He was without a doubt the bravest person I've ever been around," Jane said. "The prognosis was extremely bad, and he and his father started selling their businesses because they didn't think anyone would be around to run them. Frank jumped in and absolutely masterminded the whole thing while he was really ill."

Frank Jr. recovered from that bout with cancer. The bottling company sold in 1989 for a reported $250 million. Frank Jr. became known as "the stealth philanthropist" because he quietly supported charities statewide.

Now it's Jane making headlines. When Frank Jr. served on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, Jane rehabilitated orphaned or injured wild animals.

"It made for some interesting experiences in Little Rock," Jane said. "I had a deer in the backyard. I had a bobcat upstairs. I wasn't your average Junior Leaguer. ... At my age, what I would like to see is a legacy. When people think of Summer Wind, whether it is next year or 20 years or more from now, I hope they'll remember how much we cared--and how you can start with a dream and persevere and, lo and behold, to some degree, it can happen."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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