Column: The legend of Tony JackBy DAVID GUSTAFSON,
Every small town in America has a character or two that manages to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
The Pine Belt has plenty of them – including several being honored earlier this month as part of our annual Best of the Pine Belt Awards.
Sometimes those people stand out because of their dynamic personality. Other times it’s because of their knack of being able to get the job done no matter what that job happens to be, whether it’s leading a community fundraising effort or some other worthwhile cause – or maybe just offering a shoulder to lean on or a reassuring handshake at just the right time.
In some cases, a person’s wardrobe can even help them stand out.
In the small northeastern Oklahoma town where I was born and raised, that person was Tony Jack Lyons, a legendary old-school attorney and city judge known for his uncanny knack of getting his way – both in the courtroom and in life.
As a child growing up, I remember seeing Tony Jack walk by our house on his evening “constitutionals.” He seemed like a giant among men and walked with a certain gait that just seemed to ooze power.
He was always dressed to the nines. On some nights, he would stroll by dressed in a Confederate soldier’s uniform with sword at his side and wearing tall, black boots so shiny that you were pretty sure he had someone on the payroll who did nothing but polish them all day long.
He was proud of his Native American heritage and had an entire wardrobe of traditional Indian garb and he would often throw on a giant headdress and walk around with a tomahawk on his hip.
You never quite knew how to take Tony Jack – and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
His life was like a movie. He was an All-State football player in high school and was attending Oklahoma A&M College on a football scholarship when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1942.
Without hesitation, he joined the Army Air Corps and after flying B-24 bombers throughout World War II, he spent more than 30 years in the Air Force Reserves and eventually retired as a full colonel.
Back home in Oklahoma, he made a name for himself as a defense attorney and had a fierce reputation in the courtroom. Whether they would admit it or not, district attorneys throughout the state quaked in their boots at the thought of facing him at trial. In fact, during his 50+ years of practicing law, he claimed to have won more than 100 murder cases and admitted to only losing six others. Nobody knew how accurate those numbers were, but it didn’t matter. Tony Jack was a legend and those of us who knew him, loved him.
He served for many years as a municipal judge and had a well-earned reputation of being tough on crime. He made headlines once for sending a grandmother to jail for speeding through a school zone.
In addition to his stellar legal and judicial career, he was known as a generous philanthropist.
During my career as a journalist, I had the occasion to get to know him quite while and each time I visited his office, he made a point to give me something –
whether it was a book from his massive library or an antique knife from his expansive collection. And he never asked for anything in return.
Tony Jack died more than a decade ago, leaving a lifetime legacy of good work behind.
As I reflect back on this year’s Best of the Pine Belt celebration, I have been thinking about the other “Tony Jacks” I have encountered over the years.
Here in south Mississippi, it seems the quota of memorable people exceeds the national average. In fact, in the decade or so I have lived here, I have had the great fortune to meet several men and women who could have walked in Tony Jack’s footsteps.
The generosity, the intuitive drive to succeed and the “can do” attitude that he possessed is something that seems to be woven into the native fabric that makes Hattiesburg and the surrounding area so grand.
I have no idea if Tony Jack Lyons ever made his way to the Pine Belt of south Mississippi, but I imagine there’s a pretty good chance he did.
And knowing my friend and knowing this area, I’m guessing he would have enjoyed every minute of it.
Gustafson is the editor and publisher of The Hattiesburg Post, The Lamar Times, and The Petal News. His columns often appears under the “Walking the Line” title – an homage to the late, great Johnny Cash, a memorable character in his own right.