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WOODWORKING

BY DAVE WOOD

If only Bob and Elise were here

Time Marches On. And with it, old friends who pass on to their rewards on the other side. Last month I picked up my Star Tribune and read a story about old neighbors, with whom we shared many good times until they passed away some years ago. All I could think of was “if only Bob and Elise were here to know this story.”

Bob and Elise Lyle and their remarkable family lived a few blocks from us in south Minneapolis. Bob, the son of a black minister in Mississippi, introduced me to the WPA writers club which met once a month at the Radisson Hotel and reminisced about their days working as writers doing histories of small towns, subsidized by Works Projects Administrations. I was too young to join but loved to hear their recollections of surviving as a writer in tough times.

Bob and Elise settled in Minneapolis in 1945, having graduated from top-ranked black colleges in the south. Elise had a fulltime job as an English teacher at North High, but Bob, who could quote reams of Shakespeare poetry, was not so lucky. In those days the Minneapolis school district did not hire black male teachers. But the Lyles made do with Bob working as a waiter at the Leamington Hotel and as a bellhop.

Years later, Bob earned graduate credits at the University and landed a job as an English teacher at South High. Later his skill as a writer was rewarded when the Minneapolis Tribune hired him as an editorial writer for their prize-winning op-ed page. I came aboard at the Tribune at about the same time and our relationship flourished. A high spot was being invited along with editor-in-chief Charles W. Bailey and spouse to an elegant dinner at the Lyles’ beautifully restored home on Park Avenue. We were greeted at the door by a white maid and served dinner by another white waitress. That was pure Bob Lyle, a burly handsome fellow with a deep voice that might have cast him as Othello.

And so why would Bob and Elise have reveled in this story I was reading in the recent issue of the Star Tribune? Because one of their seven offspring was in the news. Turns out their son Ollie Lyle, a prominent bassist in jazz groups around the Twin Cities has just published a novel entitled “Valley too Far: A Jazz Novel.” A local politician showed up at Ollie's home to congratulate him.

But it’s not just that the book was published.

Soon after a gig in the military, Oliver Lyle studied sociology at the University of Minnesota and worked nights playing string bass at The Point Supper Club in Golden Valley. Both Ollie and his famous brother, jazz pianist Bobby Lyle, were trained by their mother Elise, a church organist. But here’s what Star Tribune reporter Kim Hyatt had to say about the book’s contents: “In 1969 Lyle was pulled over nine times in six weeks while traveling from his apartment in Minneapolis Dinkytown to the Point Supper Club where he performed. He sued several Golden Valley police officers for depriving him of his civil rights, arguing they had exhibited a 'pattern of prejudice' by repeatedly harassing him (and making him late for work at The Point).

“'They had like a border check between Minneapolis and Golden Valley,” Lyle said. “'See Black person, pull them over.’ And they would have the audacity to ask, 'Are you lost?’ As I remember on the way to jail, I told the officers that I'd see them in court and they laughed. I was anxious as to whether they laughed because they thought that was a silly thing for anyone to say, or because I was a negro and they thought I wouldn't have a chance before a judge.’” After a two-week trial, jurors deliberated for 3.5 days before finding the police chief and three officers guilty of conspiring to deprive him of his civil rights and awarded Lyle $4,000. But the officers were also absolved of any wrongdoing in a pamphlet published with the title “It happened in Golden Valley.”

And so, who was the politician who came to congratulate Ollie on his new book? Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris, who is instituting racial awareness measures inspired since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Wait, there's more!

Does Oliver Lyle still live in Dinkytown? No, he lives in—you guessed it—Golden Valley.

So there you have it. Bob and Elise overcame odds to survive when they moved up North and now their progeny is keeping up the good work. I only wish those fine parents were here to enjoy it all.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

November 10, 2021