Former economist cherishes memories

Tammie Tamara

Tammie TamaraSection Editor

The cheerful, bright-eyed woman at Greenleaf Assisted Living Center looks like she has stories to tell. Her friendly smile and sparkling eyes aid her in relaying the story of her 84 years.

Mary Frances Lyle, a retired home economist who served SDSU for years, has dedicated most of her life to working with the Cooperative Extension Service. She has been everything from a State 4-H leader to a program leader for the 4-H division in Washington, D.C.

When she moves to Yankton at the beginning of December, she will say goodbye to the town that has been her home for the past four decades.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she admits.

However, in Yankton she will be closer to two of her sisters and her brother, in addition to having a new studio apartment at an assisted living center there.

“It’s on the bluffs and you can see the Missouri,” she said.

Born on a farm in Union County on Nov. 17, 1917, she grew up with six brothers and sisters. Her mother died when she was 14 years old.

“Cancer of the liver ? they didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “They don’t know much more about cancer now.”

She admires her father for bringing up the children without their mother. “He did a darn good job with us kids, I’d say.”

Some of her strongest recollections growing up are from the ’30s.

“I think anybody my age remembers the Dirty ’30s,” she said.”The wind, the dust, the thistles, and no rain and no money. Except we never went hungry. We had a garden and we could water our garden from the well. We always had potatoes.”

She graduated from Elk Point High School. “I went to college one year and got my first grade teaching certificate.”

She then taught four years in Union County before her aunt spurred her to return to college by saying that her younger sister by five years would graduate before her. She graduated from University of South Dakota in 1943 with a degree in home economics education.

She started to work for SDSU that year as an extension home economist in Day and Grant counties, and the next year she transferred to Yankton and Bon Homme.

She took the job because, unlike teaching, it was a 12-months-a-year job.

“Of course, I didn’t know a darn thing about it,” she said. In July of 1945, she joined the South Dakota 4-H staff.

She received her master’s from Iowa State University in textiles and clothing in 1953 and her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in cooperative extension administration in 1958.In 1959, she was transferred to Washington, D.C., with the Department of Agriculture.

“I was program leader in Washington for the Western States in 4-H, and I had nation-wide responsibilities,” she said. Among those responsibilities were safety, photography and evaluation.

She returned to Brookings Jan. 1, 1962. “I came back to South Dakota as a state leader, home economics extension. That meant that I was responsible for the extension home economists in all the counties.”

That involved teaching nutrition, food safety, family, clothing, etc.

“The role of the extension homemakers is to teach the homemakers in the county all the phases of family life,” she said.

One of her most exciting moments in her career was hosting 2,300 women from all over the country at a six-day national convention in 1967.

“One of the fantastic things that happened was that the National Extension Homemakers Council met on the campus of South Dakota State University,” she said with pride in her voice, smiling at the memory.

“Nobody thought we could do it, but we did. It was a real interesting time in the fact that that was the first really big national conference that we had on campus.”

President Hilton M. Briggs, the Physical Plant, food and housing, and the deans of agriculture and home economics were all involved in pulling off the conference. The conference itself consisted of general sessions and educational programs. “We didn’t have the HPER at that time. Our meetings were held in the Barn.”

She is not sure what prompted her to become involved with the extension. She remembers belonging to 4-H as a child.

“I don’t know if I ever completed my project or not. I can’t remember that far.”

The extension is more than it implies. “It’s more than just training to do your teaching job,” she said.

It involves doing public relations with the Department of Agriculture and with newspapers as well as arranging programs.

In her years with the extension, she has worked with everything from home furnishing projects to rural electricity and water systems. As far as training programs go, she holds the extension in high regard.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that has a better training program than the Cooperative Extension Service.”

Never married, she joked that she has “always been able to spend my own paycheck.” Plus, she enjoys the company of her siblings’ children.

“I have lots of nieces and nephews that have gone to college [at SDSU] and stayed with me. I enjoyed that.”

Deb Bortnem, secretary for the extension service on campus, has known Mary Frances Lyle since 1971.

“When I graduated from high school, I heard of an opening with the extension service. I was looking for a job,” she said. “Mary Frances Lyle interviewed me and basically hired me right out of high school. I did go to college though. I’ve worked here ever since, and that’s been 30 years.”

She admires Lyle both professionally and personally. “She was a real worker,” Bortnem said. “She was a very special lady to work for.”

Retiring in February of 1978, Lyle was active in Meals on Wheels, the United Fund Board and the Cancer Crusade. She found that she came to know more people in Brookings after she retired than when she was working with the extension.

“Traveling as I did, I didn’t really know that many people in Brookings until I retired. But I’ve met a lot of people since.”

When she moves to Yankton at the beginning of next month, she will have the opportunity to meet a whole new community. But she won’t forget what this town has meant to her.

“I’ll miss people in Brookings.”