At Home In The Phone Industry

By Jenny Callison, posted Mar 23, 2018
Calling it a day: John Lyon, who headed external affairs for AT&T in North Carolina's 38 eastern counties, retired after more than 40 years in the telephone industry. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
You could say that John Lyon’s retirement after 40-plus years in the telephone industry marked the end of an era. AT&T’s regional director for external affairs, whose last day on the job was March 5, followed in a long line of family footsteps.
“My grandfather was an installer in western Pennsylvania. He started in 1908 and worked close to 50 years for Bell Pennsylvania,” Lyon said. “My father started with Bell Pennsylvania in 1938 or ’39. He started with installation, and then moved into management and became the district manager of western Pennsylvania. He worked until he died in 1973, which was the year I began working for Ohio Bell. So there have been 110 years of family service. My mother was a telephone operator for several years; my mother-in-law was an employee [of Bell Telephone], as well as several uncles. There’s a long history of a Lyon at Bell.”
In fact, Lyon said, his grandfather and father were both referred to as “Mr. Bell Telephone” in the towns where they lived and worked.
Lyon, an accounting major at Pennsylvania State University, landed his first job in the accounting department of Ohio Bell in Cleveland, Ohio, shortly after college graduation and marriage.
After five years, he was moved over to Ohio Bell’s Yellow Pages unit, where he ran the accounting department before being promoted to head the entire Yellow Pages operation.
Then came the big breakup.
When the federal government in 1983 mandated the splitting of Bell Telephone into seven separate regional companies, Lyon became an employee of Ameritech, the Midwestern so-called “Baby Bell.” He moved to Chicago and worked for 10 years in purchasing. His next assignment saw him head south.
“In 1993 I accepted an assignment in Florida with a volunteer organization associated with telephone companies. It was called Telephone Pioneers and was made up of Bell system employees and retirees,” Lyon said.
After five years in Florida as an Ameritech employee on loan to the Pioneers, Lyon went to the Telephone Pioneers headquarters in Denver, Colorado, where he oversaw strategic planning and the organization’s special initiative: a personalized book distribution program for the nation’s elementary school students.
Then came an era of Baby Bell consolidation. Southwestern Bell, which had purchased Pacific Bell in 1997, bought Ameritech two years later. That merger sent Lyon – now a Southwestern Bell employee – to St. Louis, Missouri, where he oversaw Telephone Pioneers’ activities in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. When Southwestern Bell purchased the old AT&T, becoming the new AT&T, Lyon’s territory expanded to include much of the eastern United States.
Lyon’s career took another southward turn when the new AT&T purchased BellSouth in 2007. He came to Wilmington to head up the company’s external affairs in North Carolina’s eastern 38 counties.
“This position is about 75 percent government and legislative affairs and 25 percent community relations,” Lyon said, explaining that he spent much of his time meeting with elected officials on issues and legislation of importance to AT&T.
Lyon said he probably became better known for the community relations part of his job. He served on the boards of numerous entities, such as Wilmington Business Development, and was involved with nonprofits. His responsibilities included helping those organizations seek financial support from the Dallas, Texas-based AT&T Foundation.
As an example, Lyon said, “Last year we were able to work with our foundation where we brought in $1.25 million for Communities in Schools statewide. Locally, for the Cape Fear Communities in Schools, we have been able to arrange for smaller grants on a couple of occasions of $30,000 to $50,000.”
Over the past 45 years, Lyon has had a front-row seat to dramatic changes.
“I’ve seen a transition from what we call analog telephone technology to mobile: what we have today,” he said. “When I started with the company, cell phones didn’t exist; everybody had a landline. One hundred percent of folks had a landline; now it’s between 25 and 50 percent.
As for the Yellow Pages, Lyon said, “I can’t think of the last time I used the Yellow Pages. It’s still produced, but [AT&T] sold a majority share of our Yellow Pages several years ago.”
Lyon said he is proud of the progress AT&T has made in installing fiber networks in the Cape Fear region.
“As funds become available, we want to roll out fiber to as many locations as we can,” he said, adding that in more rural areas where fiber networks are not practical, AT&T is deploying fixed wireless internet via special antennae on existing cell towers.
Lyon also touted AT&T’s progress statewide on fiber-ready certifications, noting three area “firsts” in certification: ILM, the first fiber- ready international airport in the country; Pender Business Park, the first fiber-ready business park in the state; and downtown Wilmington, the nation’s first fiber-ready Municipal Services District.
Admitting that he is “not one to sit home and watch daytime movies on TV,” Lyon knows he will stay busy since his retirement from AT&T, whether through volunteer projects or other job opportunities. He and his wife also will travel more.
Life in retirement, however, has already brought one new experience, Lyon said. “I’ve just purchased my first personal cell phone.”
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