A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Everyday Heroes: Disabilities no match for Judge Lyon; ‘I never dwell on the negatives’

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

This story is taken from Steve Flairty’s book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes. Judge Lyon, now 82, is retired and living in Russell with his wife Jean. He was recently inducted into the Russell High School Alumni Hall of Fame.

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Jim Lyon

Jim Lyon

If anyone ever told Jim Lyon he couldn’t achieve highly while dealing with three limbs missing and one disfigured, he didn’t listen. In fact, not being successful was a thought very far from his thinking. His mother made sure of that years ago, soon after he was born in 1931. Her early encouragement helped propel Lyon to an illustrious career in law and politics, serving two terms in Kentucky’s General Assembly, district and circuit court judgeships for Lewis and Greenup counties, and a long and prosperous law practice in his hometown of Raceland.

“My mother used to say ‘My baby doesn’t have any hands and doesn’t have any legs, but he has a mind,’ and that always sat well with me,” said Lyon, in his clear and deliberate voice. “I never dwell on the negatives.”

Lyon was born with “stubs” instead of arms. That meant that the two limbs coming down from his shoulders did not quite reach the elbow area. The right leg, also a stub, did not reach the knee, plus his left foot was malformed. Despite those physical abnormalities, Lyon’s childhood was remarkably similar to his peers who grew up in his Raceland neighborhood over 70 years ago.

Fitted with an artificial leg, Lyon ran and played softball and football with the other kids He occasionally even got in fights, often with his brother. That sort of thing did not particularly bother his mother, who wanted young Jim “treated like everyone else.” That included forgoing enrolling him in a special school. She insisted that her son attend the regular schools in their local area.

Lyon did well academically, graduating from Raceland High School in 1949 “within a few points of being class salutatorian,” he said. That fall, he enrolled in pre-law classes at the University of Kentucky. There he found a lot of support from the administration and teachers, who were willing to make adjustments to help him navigate the rigors of his challenging classes.

“I can’t say enough good about UK. They took care of me and gave me a chance. I just had to do the work,” Lyon said. Because of the unwieldy nature of using the “hooks” attached to his arm stubs, Lyon often was allowed the use of a scribe while taking exams. “The administration said that it was too much writing at once for me,” he said.

Lyon proudly graduated with a law degree from UK in 1955, then set up his law practice in the town of Greenup, near Raceland. He worked hard and began to establish a growing client load, but only after making an adaptation relating to his disability.

“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.” That move entailed Lyon to simply secure the writing instrument by bringing his two arm stubs together around it.

In 1958, at the young and green age of 24, Lyon executed a bold move, even for someone not dealing with physical disabilities. He ran for election to Kentucky’s General Assembly, representing Greenup County—and won. “I was interested in politics from day one,” he said, “and I had a chance to run for state representative.” The details of serving in Frankfort made it a near daunting task for Lyon.

Being very young, he was continually approached by lobbyists and colleagues to vote their way on issues. “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 grinned.

Lyon held up well, though, and completed two, two-year terms from 1958 to 1962 while he continued his law practice. In 1960, in the middle of his legislature service, Lyon wed. It has been a good marriage. His wife, Jean, has been his constant and supportive partner for nearly fifty years, many of them as secretary in his law office.

Though Lyon lost an election for county attorney in 1962, he served as circuit court master commissioner from 1962 to 1978, then as district judge into the 1980s. On the day after Christmas, 1986, Lyon suffered a heart attack and recuperated at home for about six months after by-pass surgery.

He retired in 1994, with son, James Jr., taking over his practice. The Lyon’s other son, Benjamin, is a physician in Georgetown. Truly, the “good mind” that his mother talked about was passed to the next generation.

Jim Lyon has an obvious warmth and graciousness about him. His easy way, no doubt, is in appreciation of the love of many who have helped him along the way. He carries with him the support of his wife and family, the people in college who gave him a chance, his colleagues and friends. Lyon, too, has helped many along the way. He remembers his days as judge in the courtroom.

“I always tried to give people who stood before me another chance. One man, who was guilty of a DUI but I went a little easy on him. I hoped he would do better. Years later, he told me that because of that chance, he turned his life around…quit drinking and got back with his wife.” Lyon also made it clear he didn’t like to make “speeches” in court where he might humiliate someone. “You never know if someone might get back at you later,” he said.

Lyon, even in his busy career days, involved himself with civic activities.

These days, Jim Lyon keeps busy by occasionally helping out his lawyer son, keeping up with UK sports and doing a little automobile driving in a car adapted to handle his physical needs. “I drive around town a little,” he grinned, “mostly to McDonald’s and sometimes I’ll pick up groceries at the store for the wife.”

In a world that is demanding and competitive—even for the able-bodied—Jim Lyon has proved that accentuating the positives, developing an attitude of focus, and accepting the support of others can turn a person into a genuine world-beater.



Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. He will soon be a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Contact Steve at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)


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