In Remembrance of Joan Herrin Lyons
A Houston Legend and Lifelong Friend
What can one say about the life of a woman who was “all Houston” all the time!?! Joan Herrin Lyons was Houston royalty. Parents Hazel and Robert Herrin brought this bundle of joy to her favorite city at the age of two and for the rest of her life, she made Houston her own. Robert (or as he was affectionately known in the family as “Pop Bob”) founded Herrin Transportation, a nationally respected shipping and transportation company. Hazel (known to many as “Big Momma” or Robert’s favorite name for her was “Big Red”) was larger than life and passed those traits on to her children.
Joan’s early life was one of fun and kinship. She and her brother Robert Herrin, Jr. learned early the importance of family and that it was the “makings for a great life!”
As a child, Joan reached for the stars, and people took notice. At the ripe young age of four, she was chosen out of many young candidates to be the mascot for the Hallie D. Pritchard Professional Club, a prominent organization that raised scholarship money to send one of its finest candidates for instruction by our country’s leading dance masters. She was featured in the Houston Chronicle!
Joan attended and graduated from The Kinkaid School, where she excelled not only scholastically, but also athletically and socially. She was an honors student, basketball star, president of the student body, and a cheerleader.
She was proudly accepted at The University of Texas at Austin where she pledged to the Beta Eta chapter of the Delta Gamma Fraternity. She was a founding member of the Delta Gamma Foundation of Houston and wholly supported its mission of Service for Sight. Their renowned Oxford Award for community leadership and activity was bestowed on her in 2016. Her athleticism continued here with her prowess in “Powder Puff” intramural football. Legendary Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry’s first coaching job was to guide Joan in this effort and she never forgot it. Neither did he!
“Pop Bob” wanted both his kids to learn to fly. He knew they had an inherent determination and desire for completing a task, and if anyone could do it, they could! Joan lived up to his expectations and got her pilot’s license, but a rice field would be the recipient of her aerial expertise as the plane developed problems and she would crash. Unharmed, Joan decided that was enough and to not tempt fate a second time.
“Big Momma” and “Pop Bob” bought a farm in Stafford, where the family would spend a great deal of time. They raised Hereford cattle and cherished their brief respite away from the bustling city. “Mack the Knife” and “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You” were their songs. “Pop Bob” would always say, “I’m just a country boy who came to the city and worked like hell—just to go back to the country!” While in town, Gordon Edge’s Confederate House Restaurant became one of their favorite haunts. “Big Momma” never met a waiter she didn’t love! The restaurant also became one of Joan’s lifetime favorites as well, as it did for many notable Houstonians. Many a deal was created and a lot of hand-shaking was done there!
One thing people certainly remember about the Herrins was their celebrated holiday and Hereford parties, where some 1,500-2,000 exceptionally lucky guests were invited each year. This is certainly where Joan inherited her flair for throwing a shindig everyone would remember.
While finishing up at UT, Joanie met and married All-American football star, Dan Wagner. Upon graduation, Dan was recruited by the Green Bay Packers, so the two lovebirds packed up and moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin. They were married about a year, quietly divorced and Joan returned to Houston.
Providence intervened fairly quickly as she met John Lyons on a blind date that happily seemed to never end for her. She knew this was the “real deal!” John built Magabar, a very successful company that sold mud to contractors who drilled oil wells. His company was later sold to Dresser Industries, which was eventually purchased and became part of Halliburton. Joan talked Johnny into buying a ranch in Round Top. The ranch was called Dos Verdes (Two Greens), which coincided with the road leading into the ranch flanked on both sides by vibrant green pastures, just perfect for raising Charolais, and as it turns out, three children: Ted, Linda and Tallie. As with her parents, Joan and Johnny’s parties were equally as legendary. In memory of the 1976 centennial, the Lyons family gave a star-studded affair at their ranch. Always the decorator, the ranch colors of pink and green extended to their Charolais cattle as well. Joan decided to dye the cows pink so guests would see them in the pasture on the drive into the ranch. The cattle were placed in pens, red dye was poured into the fly spray and pink cows were the painted result! There was even an attempt to paint their prize bull red, white & blue, but the bull wanted no part of it, so that attempt was short-lived!
The Lyons family were great travelers and loved communing with nature. One magnificent trip took the kids through Grand Canyon where they ran the rapids and slept in plastic tents.
John passed in 1980. Heartbroken, but still having children to raise, Joan threw herself deeper into the family but equally as deep into community involvement, which in her case is monumental.
I would venture to say, there is rarely a charity in Houston that hasn’t benefited from this amazing woman’s beneficence. She was a pioneer for new ways to help people with genuine needs. In 1972, she and a group of friends founded Houston Delta Gamma Foundation, to assist those who were blind and visually impaired. A long-time rodeo supporter and Lifetime Director, Joan created a committee called the Cluckers, whose purpose was to purchase chickens. As a rodeo volunteer, Joan’s 18-year-old daughter Linda needed buyers for her rodeo participation, so Joan came to the rescue and the committee grew from there! Joan asked Jeanie Kilroy to join this illustrious group, along with Andy Delery, Marguerite Swartz, Sandy Eckels and Edna Meyer-Nelson. Jeanie remembers fondly that Joan had a unique way of bringing people from different backgrounds together for the common good, but also for combined fun! Shortly after joining the group, they switched from purchasing chickens to sheep and goats, but they always remained the Cluckers.
For eight years she was President of Baylor College of Medicine’s “Baylor Ten,” and served on the boards of Baylor’s Huffington Center on Aging, the UTHSC’s Hermann Eye Fund, and Trees of Hope. She was a member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, TIRR Foundation, American Heart Association, Prevent Blindness Foundation, the School for the Deaf and March of Dimes. She became a patron of the Houston Grand Opera, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Symphony, Ambassador of the Houston Ballet, Museum of Natural Science, Houston Zoological Society, NOW, the Heritage Society, and the Kinkaid Alumni Association.
Man about town Ed McMahon grew up with Joan. His parents became Linda Lyons’ godparents. Joan also got Ed involved in the rodeo and he has remained part of it to this day. He remembers the great parties that Joan and Johnny threw and that their International, Christmas and LSU/Rice game gatherings were the biggest in town at that time. Many people ended up in their Tanglewood home fountain during these shindigs!
Joan was fascinated by science, nature and travel. In the late 1980s, while involved with Baylor, Joan went on a National Geographic trip in a boat down the Amazon with a group of scientists, who were studying species native to the area. She came back with a boat full of knowledge and said it was the trip of a lifetime! She almost made it to Antarctica, but once she got as far as Argentina, a family emergency made her return home.
This legendary leader of the social community was also a legendary and adept poker player. Everyone loved Joan’s heart but Joan took no prisoners when playing weekly poker tournaments at River Oaks Country Club. Houston stalwart Liz Jameson played cards with Joan for over 25 years and remarked, “Joan would arrive and hold court dressed-to-the-nines with matching jewelry-white with her diamonds, red with her rubies, green with her emeralds and blue with her sapphires.” She always said, “Ya’ll only want my money, not me!” She would then win all their money and smile that wide beautiful smile while doing it.
Joan loved her martinis! No one knows if this “Martini Toast” originated from social luminary and great friend Mary Greenwood or from Joan, but Joan wasted no time in taking credit for it, and using it time and time again! The toast—“One is my limit. Two at the most. Three-I’m under the table and Four-I’m under the host.” Another Mary Greenwood/Joan story occurred at Rice Epicurean Market. Joan was again dressed immaculately in her leopard coat and Mary in her sparkly jewels while grocery shopping. A lady gave them grief about wearing diamonds and furs during the day. Mary proudly responded for them both, saying, “I thought that too Honey, until I had them!”
Joan’s love for her two children, their spouses, seven grandchildren and their spouses, five great-grandchildren, and many friends will remember the joy of being in her presence and being there to gather the sparkle she emanated from every fiber of her being. She was Houston. She was Texas. She was Joan.