More than 20 years ago, when I was serving a federal prison sentence for an anti-war protest, I was contacted by Phyllis Tyler who wanted to tell my story in The Spectator. Tyler wrote a regular column for the tabloid, but instead of writing the piece herself, she asked my friend, Durham lawyer Alex Charns, to write the column.
Though a fine writer, Tyler insisted that Alex would do a better job. The humble Tyler, who was also a stalwart advocate for peace and justice, died Jan. 3 in Maryland after an extended illness. She was 88.
Tyler, a mother of four children, will surely be remembered as one of the Triangle’s most passionate activists in the latter 20th century. She and her husband of 65 years, Lloyd, were longtime members of the United Church (now Community United Church of Christ) and the Raleigh Friends Meeting and both devoted their lives to eradicating war, poverty and racism.
In addition to her column, called “Beautiful Lofty People” (which began in The Spectator and moved to the Independent), Phyllis Tyler was a regular on picket lines throughout North Carolina and in Washington, D.C.
“My mother liked to say that my youngest brother learned to walk on a picket line,” says Anne Tyler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Lloyd and Phyllis’ only daughter. “Because both of my parents had always been so involved on behalf of peace and civil rights, I guess I grew up taking that part of our lives for granted,” Anne wrote in an e-mail for this story. “I have many memories of my mother sitting over coffee in our dining room with someone–a friend, an acquaintance or even a stranger–and listening with sympathy and full attention to his or her troubles and dreams. She was always intensely interested in other people’s stories, as I am sure anyone must realize who read her columns.”
Phyllis Tyler and the late Catholic Sister Evelyn Mattern were involved in the founding of the Raleigh Women’s Center, which aided homeless women and women coming out of prison. In the 1960s, the Tylers worked together with an interracial church group to develop RICH Park, a 100-unit, federally funded low- to moderate-income housing development on Raleigh’s Method Road.
Phyllis and Lloyd devoted “untold numbers of hours just as volunteers” to the project, says activist Carolyn King, who along with her husband, Cyrus, were the Tylers’ close friends.
Tyler was “a very quiet, unassuming person, but a woman of strong convictions,” King says. “I think of Phyllis as being a gentle person, strictly committed to nonviolence.”
In the early 1970s, the Tylers took an assignment with the American Friends Service Committee working more than two years managing a series of preschools for Palestinian refugee children in Gaza.
Lloyd Tyler, 90, first met his wife-to-be in the late 1930s when both were undergraduates at the University of Minnesota. It was Phyllis’ sincerity and her concern for other people that convinced Lloyd he had found the right woman to marry, he says.
Lloyd, who was born a Quaker, said his wife joined the Friends because of her belief in nonviolence.
Lloyd is a chemist, and Phyllis, a Minnesota native, had a master’s degree in social work. The couple married March 1, 1940. In the late 1940s, they moved to Celo, an intentional agriculture-based community, where they remained until coming to Raleigh in 1952 when Lloyd took a job as a chemist monitoring water quality. Lloyd says the couple moved near Baltimore “in our old age” to live near their daughter.
King says Tyler had a penchant for wearing large straw hats to protest marches to keep the sun off of her face.
“There’d be thousands of people there, and the photographers would always head for Phyllis to take her picture,” King says. “She just stood out in the crowd.”
Tyler had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for about six years, and it had been severe for the last three, her husband says.
“Her passing was not unexpected at all,” Lloyd Tyler says. “We were very thankful that she went so peacefully and nicely.”
Asked what was special about Phyllis, Lloyd chuckled and said: “I guess ’cause I loved her.”