Laurel Coryell Lyon
May 1, 1950 – November 24, 2018
Full of warmth, invention, compassion, and wit, Laurel Lyon was a unique phenomenon. Laurel not only thought outside the box, she lived outside the box. World traveler, field trip maven, green thumb, imaginative cook, athlete, environmentalist, former hippie commune resident, she had a penchant for creative performance and costume arts, an enduring legacy of friendships, and love for steam locomotives and rail travel. She died November 24th, 2018, from complications of life-long diabetes. She was 68.
She was born in Chicago May 1st, 1950. Her family of origin included three siblings and for several years they lived overseas in Melbourne, Australia. While returning home, the family visited Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan with a side trip into communist China. The family spent many summer vacations together at her grandparents’ cabin on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and later at her parents’ cabin on Lake Michigan. Her family’s rich tradition of creative play, invented games, impromptu theater, charades, song fests, and home-made party hats always inspired Laurel to “make something out of nothing.”
Formal higher education began with a BA in Art History from Oberlin, 1972 and Master of Landscape Architecture from University of Oregon, 1980. She continued world travel experiences to Japan, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, and France. Laurel’s approach in life was as an explorer and observer with unending curiosity and an eye for detail. Laurel always said, “My home is wherever I am.”
Laurel’s exploring tendency, sometimes solo and sometimes in company, led to her encyclopedic knowledge of the West’s nooks and crannies. A typical thematic trip with her husband was one through Nevada only driving on “blue” highways, and only visiting towns with a population of 300 or less. Another was a two-day bicycle trip beginning at Husum Falls, Washington, and overnight at Mt. Adams Flying A Ranch where she was on a first name basis with the owners and staff, then on to “Stonehenge” and Rodin watercolors at Maryhill Museum of Art.
As an undergraduate at Oberlin, Laurel began her practice of adaptive living in one of the nation’s first student co-op houses enigmatically named “Tank.” In 1973, she moved to Oregon and lived with her sister in a naked hippie commune that raised ducks. Next, she resided in a Landscape Architecture student cooperative in the historic Sheldon-McMurphy-Johnson House at the base of Skinner’s Butte in Eugene. This was the scene of many legendary costumed Beaux Arts Balls, in which furniture was moved, rugs rolled up to dance, and early dawn ended the parties. The exuberant parties punctuated the long days and nights spent in Design Studios during each term.
An imaginative cook and “green thumb,” Laurel’s favorite meal was salad. She loved cooking and eating outdoors whether on the front porch or on a camping trip. Her annual vegetable garden plot was prolific, and often snap peas, basil, Roma tomatoes, and favorite yellow cherry tomatoes were in pots close to the kitchen door.
Laurel’s creative imagination was ever-present and always innovative. Her gift “flower” bouquets made from copper wire, electrical hardware, and a multitude of dials are enduring art pieces. Some performance art pieces were made with food; the menu of her “edible banquet” included the plates, cups and utensils. Specific events inspired other food sculptures like the rising submarine cake, and the “Fall of the Berlin Wall” cake. More performance art took the form of Halloween costumes such as “The Simpsons” when Laurel and three other friends each became a family member including a real baby in arms, and “Sushi“ with Laurel enveloped in chunks of white cotton batting wrapped around with black plastic, her head and bare shoulders exposed on top as garnish. Also many costumed annual Red Dress fundraisers.
Travel by rail caught Laurel’s imagination with her first train trip from Chicago to California, up the Pacific Coast, and back across Canada, at the age of twelve. As she put it, “You might say I got on the train in 1962 and never got off.” She was instrumental in the formation of Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation and, with her husband, Phil Barney, helped to achieve the Center’s current success. While working for the affordable housing non-profit, REACH, on the Milwaukie Neighborhood Action Plan, she encountered the Brooklyn Roundhouse and railroad buffs who were restoring three historic steam engines. In 1998 the group became a 501(c) 3 organization with Laurel as the first President. The Holiday Express, most likely the largest party she ever organized, made its first run in 2005 and has continued to be a Seasonal Holiday tradition, its steam whistle resounding all over Portland neighborhoods. The Oregon Rail Heritage Center with red 18 foot tall engine-sized doors (built by Phil Barney) houses four engines and is the locus for maintenance, restoration, and encouragement of historic railway appreciation. As a long-time aficionado said, “The steam engines are “closer to a living thing than any other machine man has created,” and they have a reputation for personality, power, romance, and magical presence.
Laurel was a loyal friend — her immediacy and warmth drew people to her, and they often connected with each other in extended networks. During her last hours in hospice, the hospital staff “kept having to bring in more chairs.” Laurel’s legacy of creativity and character is an inspiration to all of us who live semi-outside the box. We miss you Laurel, and we carry your colorful legacy within us always.
Laurel was predeceased by her parents including her birth mother, Wynne Wolf Lyon, her father, Bayard Lyon and stepmother, Nancy Lyon. She is survived by her husband of 17 years Phil Barney, of Portland; sister, Marian and husband John Boye of Brookings, Oregon; nephew Dylan Boye and niece Megan Boye; brother, Bill Lyon and wife Marianne Lyon of Richmond Virginia; sister Ginger Lyon, of Atlanta, Georgia; and also step-siblings Kim Skyelander of Colorado and Bill Hattendorf of Michigan.
In lieu of flowers, contributions to the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation in memory of Laurel Lyon may be made at https://orhf.org then click on the “Donate” button.