If anyone ever told Jim Lyon he wouldn’t amount to much because of his physical disabilities, he didn’t listen. The fact that he entered this world with two stubs for arms, one stub for a leg and the “good” leg malformed was not a reason to be unsuccessful in his life and career.
Jim’s mother made that clear to him years ago, almost as soon as he was born in 1931. Her early encouragement inspired Jim to become a respected lawyer and politician, who served two terms In Kentucky’s General Assembly and became a district and circuit court judge for eastern Kentucky’s Lewis and Greenup counties. Jim also had a long and prosperous law practice in his hometown of Raceland, as well as coaching in little league ball programs in his community.
“My mother used to say ‘My baby doesn’t have any hands and doesn’t have any leg, but he has a mind,’ and that always sat well with me,” he said in a clear and pleasant voice. “I never dwell on the negatives.”
Jim was born with the shortened arm limbs–better to be called “stubs” than arms. The right leg did not extend as long as where the knee normally would be, thus an artificial leg was needed. The other leg, with its limitations, was also a challenge for him. Despite these obstacles, Jim’s childhood play and social activities were similar to his peers while growing up in his Raceland neighborhood over 80 years ago. With the artificial leg, he ran and played softball and football with the other kids. He occasionally got in fights, often with his brother. That sort of thing did not particularly bother his mother, who wanted young Jim treated like others his age. For that reason, she thought it best for her son to attend a regular school in their local area, not a “special” school.
Jim made good grades, both in elementary and high school. He graduated from Raceland High School in1949—third in his class. That fall, he started college at the University of Kentucky. Many people at the college helped him by making adjustments so that his disabilities would not hinder his success. He used “hooks’ on his arm stubs to help him write, but he often was allowed to have a scribe to write information on paper for him.
“I can’t say enough good about UK,” he said. “They took care of me and gave me a chance. I just had to do the work.”
Jim proudly graduated with a law degree from UK in 1955, then set up his law practice in the town of Greenup, near Raceland. He found that using the hooks in his work was a problem. “I had a lot to do to compete with the other lawyers in town, and using my hooks to do paperwork slowed me down,” he said, “so I quit using the hooks and I worked much faster.” His business began to grow with the help of his secretary, who later became his wife.
In 1958, at the green age of 27, he stepped out and made a bold move–a move that would be very challenging even to an able-bodied person. He ran for election to Kentucky’s General Assembly, representing Greenup County—and won. He had always been interested in politics, but he found that the responsibilities of serving were very big. Lots of people tried to get him to vote their way on issues, and it was hard on Jim.
“There were times I’d be awakened in the middle of the night about an issue. It got to be so demanding that I got boils on my arm stubs at times. I had ‘legislative stress,’” he said with a grin.
He survived the difficulties and completed two 2-year terms from 1958 to 1962 while he continued his law practice. In 1960, in the middle of his legislative service, he got married. His wife, Jean, has been his constant and supportive partner, both in their home life and as secretary in the law office.
Jim held local office as circuit court master commissioner from 1962 to 1978, then as district judge into the 1980s. On the day after Christmas, 1986, he suffered a heart attack and recuperated at home for about six months after by-pass surgery. He retired in 1994.
Jim Lyon has a kind heart and giving nature. One feels better just spending a few moments around him. His easy way likely was formed by having the loving support of many friends, his wife and family over many years.
Jim has helped many along the way, too. He remembers his days as a courtroom judge: “I always tried to give people who stood before me a second chance,” he said. He told of a man who was guilty of a driving-under-the-influence charge, and how he went “a little easy on him.” That decision by the judge worked out well. “Years later, he told me that because of that chance, he turned his life around…quit drinking and got back with his wife.” Along with those kind acts, he made it a point not to humiliate those who appeared in court.
In retirement, Jim keeps busy by occasionally helping out his lawyer son, James Lyon, Jr. He follows UK sports, and until a few years ago, drove around town in his car adapted to handle his special physical needs. He also greatly adores his five grandchildren, two from his lawyer son, James Lyon, Jr. living nearby and three more from his physician son, Dr. Benjamin Lyon, who practices in Georgetown.
Everywhere he goes Jim Lyon Sr. has a sweet smile and engaging personality, uplifting to all. He has proven that dwelling on the positives, keeping a focus on difficult goals, and accepting needed support from others — along with hard work — can turn a person into a true overcomer.
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is available now at many bookstores around the state or from the author.. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward appears weekly. Contact him at email@example.com.