Atomic Father

How a Detroit boy of French heritage pioneered local radio, became a missionary priest, and gained a top-level security clearance for nuclear bomb production.
Ed Clark, Michael Lyons, and Francis Lyons
Ed Clark, Michael Lyons, and his brother, Francis Lyons, stand on a dock in front of the City of Mackinac II, a steamship owned by the D&C Navigation Co. The trio launched WWJ-AM radio. // Photograph courtesy of Jeffrey McQueen

Michael DeLisle Lyons made his first big mark in his hometown of Detroit. Born in 1901, Lyons descended from Francois Bienvenu dit Delisle, who helped Cadillac establish Detroit 200 years earlier. As a teenager and product of a technological era, Lyons worked as a radio operator on a Great Lakes steamer. Still a teen, he teamed with his brother, Francis, and a friend, Ed Clark, and created radio station 8MK with backing from The Detroit News in 1920.

“I’ll never forget the Tuesday we started broadcasting,” Michael Lyons wrote of the station, known today as WWJ-AM. “I was told there was a chance the radio news would deter people from buying newspapers.”

Lyons, a graduate of University of Detroit High School, left in 1922 for Florissant, Mo., and entered St. Stanislaus Seminary. He studied geology at St. Louis University but remembered his own bedrock, writing a 1927 article titled Plan to Utilize Radio to Hasten the Conversion of Asia. Leaving that year for India, he continued to study and teach before his ordination as a Jesuit priest at St. Mary’s College, located in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Throughout the 1930s, Lyons built schools and tended the poor. Documents compiled by his grandnephew, Jeffrey McQueen, show that he put his geology training to use, too. “Maintaining his interest in his scientific hobby and desiring to be of assistance in the war effort, Father Lyons … place(d) his services temporarily at our disposal,” wrote Westmore Wilcox, leader of a United States government economic development mission.

Lyons co-authored an extensive report on the occurrence of strategic minerals in southern India. Of particular interest was beryl, the parent of beryllium, which as a metallic foil has essential properties as a “tamper” in nuclear reactions. He made a brief, mysterious return to the United States in 1945. McQueen believes it was to assist in and witness the Trinity bomb’s test at Alamogordo, N.M.

Like a secret agent, Lyons turned up, in March 1946, aboard a Navy transport ship bound from Calcutta to Seattle by way of the Pacific Islands. Before Christmas, writing from Ridgefield, Conn., he penned a long letter to the The New York Times about upheaval in India and the “extravagant demands” of some parties, writing, “I have been in the thick of riots staying the hands of those who would kill.”

The following year, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover requested a security check on Lyons, who as the order noted had been receiving mail at Keene, N.H., but was employed as a “consultant and supplier” with Brush Beryllium Co. in Cleveland. Known today as Materion Corp., the enterprise was cofounded by Charles F. Brush (Closing Bell, November/December 2018), the brilliant University of Michigan engineering graduate and one of the first to appreciate beryllium’s magic properties.

Unfortunately, Lyons’ expertise with this wondrous substance led to his isolation and death. By the late 1940s, he was living like a hermit in a tiny rancho near the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver. The plant produced the cores of nuclear weapons. As society would learn, beryllium dust and fumes cause scarring of lung tissue; Lyons died of chronic beryllium disease in 1974.

At his funeral, the Jesuits wondered about all the atomic energy people. The Rocky Flats crowd was shocked to learn Lyons was a priest. Later, their shock increased when Esther and Violet, his two daughters by Agnes Shah, an Indian nun, contested the estate and then, in 2002, received survivors’ benefits from the government. As Esther wrote, “The legitimacy and validity that had eluded us for so long was now finally within reach.”