Matthew Lyon, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs, dies at 45



Matt Lyon
Peg Skorpinski photo

20 February 2002 | Matthew Lyon, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs, whose diverse talents spanned journalism, politics, athletics and art, died unexpectedly on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the age of 45.

Lyon collapsed in Seattle, Wash., having suffered an apparent cardiac arrest while working out in the fitness center of a hotel. An avid fan of Cal athletics, he had accompanied the men’s basketball team to its game against the University of Washington.

Lyon came to Berkeley in January 1999 to lead the Office of Public Affairs. His previous career experiences, his deep appreciation for what he called “the life of the mind,” and his collaborative spirit made him the perfect match for the job and endeared him to many in the campus community.

“We will miss his leadership in public affairs, his concern about the welfare of the campus and his great humanity,” said Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who knew Lyon for nearly a decade. “I will miss one of the best friends I ever had.”

During Berdahl’s prior tenure as president of the University of Texas at Austin, Lyon served as his first speechwriter and directed many other aspects of that campus’s public affairs.
Born in 1956 in Willimantic, Conn., Lyon grew up on a series of college campuses, where his father was an American Studies professor.

When Lyon was 12, the family moved to Amherst, Mass., where his father and the father of his future wife, New York Times reporter Katie Hafner, were among the first faculty of Hampshire College. Lyon graduated from that college in 1980 with an undergraduate degree in American Studies.

A talented writer, Lyon became a stringer for The New York Times, worked briefly for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., and moved to Texas in the early 1980s to work for the Texas Observer, where he was associate editor.

“It was an alternative paper that was highly influential. They were rabble-rousers, but in a very responsible way,” said his wife.

Lyon then went to work for Lloyd Doggett, a Democratic state senator from Austin, who is now a congressman. He next worked as chief speechwriter and deputy press secretary to then-Texas Gov. Mark White. In 1987, he became national issues director for U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, who was running for president.

“He was absolutely passionate about politics,” said Hafner of her husband.

When Lyon’s brother, Christopher, became ill, Lyon left politics to work as a communications director with Park Kinetic Designs, Inc. The position allowed him to spend more time with his sibling, who died in 1989.

In 1993, Hafner met Berdahl, then president of UT Austin, and arranged for Berdahl and her husband to meet. Berdahl offered Lyon a job, and “they’ve been total soul mates ever since,” said Hafner.

At Berkeley, Lyon set out to define and communicate the goals of a diverse campus in a strategic way. His background in journalism and politics, his lifelong familiarity with academic environments, and his keen interest in technology and web communications helped him effectively lead a team of more than 35.

“Matt transformed public affairs at Berkeley, intent on making it the best in its field,” said Berdahl. “He set exacting standards for himself and generously shared his energies and expertise with his colleagues.”

He also continued to write, and his speechwriting reflected a poetic sensibility that came from his love of poetry, particularly the works of James Merrill, Wendell Berry and Wallace Stevens.

Donald McQuade, vice chancellor for university relations, added that Lyon “educated the Berkeley campus about the best practices of strategic communications” and praised Lyon’s “political acumen, nimble artistry, collaborative good will and uncompromising determination to inspire UC Berkeley to excel in this increasingly important arena in university life.”

At the time of his death, Lyon was writing a book about strategic communications. Previously, he co-authored with his wife a best-selling history of the Internet, “Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet.”

Hafner said that, recently, Lyon said how much he loved the range of issues he encountered daily in his work. “He was really happy,” she said, adding that his involvement in former President Bill Clinton’s visit to campus in late January was a particular highlight.

A gifted photographer and artist, Lyon designed his own home in Sonoma County and took pride in overseeing the competition for the annual Dorothea Lange photography fellowship.

Lyon also loved sports, especially tennis and basketball. An avid fan of the campus’s men’s basketball team, he often traveled to away games and usually stood behind the team bench during home games at Haas Pavilion.

Said Ben Braun, men’s basketball coach, “He was as big a supporter as we’ve had.” Braun was with Lyon when he died.

Lyon is survived by his wife, Katie Hafner, and their daughter, Zoe Lyon, of Berkeley; his parents, Richard Colton Lyon and Denny McTee Lyon, of Austin, Texas; and two brothers, Jeremy Lyon of Coos Bay, Ore., and Alexander Lyon of Austin.

A campus memorial service is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 28. A private service in Sonoma County will follow.


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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