Peter B. Lyons passed away in Golden, Colorado on Friday, April 29, 2021, following a yearlong battle with cancer. Pete’s partner Peggy Lyon-Bull and his sons Daniel, David and Michael were able to join him at his side in his final hours. He leaves behind a legacy of dedication—to his family, to the scientific community and to the nation for a life spent in public service.
Pete was born to Leland and Rita (nee Horblit) Lyons in Hammond Indiana, in 1943. Although born in the midwest, he spent his childhood in Boulder City, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. During his time in Nevada, he developed a passion for the geology and topography of the American southwest. He was a standout student at the small high school and also excelled as a tennis player in the then sparsely populated state. He went on to become Nevada state champion in tennis while in high school. He later joked that this wasn’t a major accomplishment, given the lack of people to play against. The highlight of his tennis career was playing in a national tournament against future Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe. Pete noted that Ashe dispensed with him fairly quickly.
While in high school, he dated Peggy Wood (later Lyon-Bull), whom he ultimately rejoined much later in life in Golden, CO, and who was a true partner, confidant and friend up until his final day. Peggy and Pete lived in Golden together for 5 years and were able to share their mutual passions for geology, birding and traveling the world. Peggy and Pete completed more trips than it’s possible to count, but among the highlights of their traveling together were trips to the Svalbard Island in the Arctic circle, and trips to Peggy’s ancestral home in Norway. They also made trips together to trace the origins of Pete’s mother’s family, among the Jewish villages of Ukraine and Poland. Pete had developed a passion for genealogy and did extensive research in the past decade on his family tree, including working with researchers on early Jewish life and culture in eastern Europe.
During their five years together in Golden, Pete became an avid supporter of the classical musical organizations that Peggy, a professional pianist, is involved with. On phone calls with his family, he frequently commented on how much he enjoyed having his own personal soundtrack of piano music in the background. Pete took his support one step further, as he often did, and served on the board of the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra.
Following high school, Pete attended college at the University of Arizona in Tucson where he met a local young woman Elaine Meyer whose midwestern parents had relocated there for health reasons to benefit from the clean, dry air. Pete and Elaine quickly fell in love and were married after their junior year at the U of A. Pete completed bachelor’s degrees in physics and math, while Elaine majored in history. Pete continued his education at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), earning a PhD in nuclear astrophysics. Elaine worked as a high school history teacher in Pasadena, sharing her passion for history with her students, and helping pay the bills for the young couple. Pete and Elaine developed lifelong friends while Pete was working in experimental physics within the Kellogg laboratory at Caltech.
During their summers at Caltech, Pete worked at China Lake Naval Air Station, east of Pasadena and far into the profoundly dry, arid, roasting hot Mojave Desert. Did I mention it was hot? Monday through Friday, Pete used a slide rule to calculate (among other things) bomb drag coefficients for the US military, during the period of the Vietnam War. Every weekend, or so it seemed, the young couple escaped into the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains, exploring seemingly every peak and high mountain lake one could find. From this time, we have thousands of Pete’s pictures of the breath-taking scenery of the Sierras, and then every hundred shots or so, he would take a picture showing Elaine and him in 1960s-era, rudimentary backpacking gear, Kelty backpacks and heavy down sleeping bags that their children still have to this day. Pete’s passion for exploring the mountain west never waned and it was among his proudest legacies that all three of his children continue today in his footsteps backpacking and hiking in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. Pete and Elaine had three boys, all born in Los Alamos, NM, in the late 1960s and early 70s. They all went through the same ritual at age 5 of going on their first backpacking trip with their Dad up to a small lake near the New Mexico-Colorado border called Duck Lake. The ritual was the same…spend the night at a little motel in Chama, eat too many pancakes too early in the morning, and then hike what seemed to be nearly a hundred miles (only 3 in reality) in slippery mud to a beautiful lake, complete with a flat-bottomed wooden raft that was available for boating around. Then, fish, fish and fish until you had caught 20 trout for dinner. Pete would catch 3 times that in a shorter period of time, but helped us all develop some real fishing skills. Sadly, we should note that despite Pete’s sons’ passion for backpacking, Pete’s passion and skills for fishing did not completely transfer to the next generation. The boys still enjoy fishing, but do not have the same skill and dogged determination to catch every fish in the lake or stream.
Upon completing his PhD at Caltech, Pete was offered a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mountains of northern New Mexico. His passion for the physics and the exciting work at the Laboratory was a perfect combination with the location where he and Elaine could continue to get into the mountains frequently. Pete worked at the Laboratory for more than 30 years in a range of scientific and leadership roles. Early in his career, he traveled frequently to Santa Barbara, California to work on developing diagnostics for experiments, and then spent even more time shuttling back and forth to the Nevada Test Site, during the era of underground nuclear testing. Pete developed novel diagnostics that were fielded on numerous experiments in Nevada through the 1970s and 1980s. He served as group leader of the diagnostics development group (known as J-14, and then P-14) at the time. He hired and mentored several generations of young staff members, some of whom continue at the Laboratory today.
Pete had a series of leadership positions at Los Alamos, taking him frequently to Washington DC for meetings with officials at the Departments of Energy and Defense and in Congress to help explain the important work of the Laboratory. Later in his Los Alamos career, then-Director Sig Hecker asked Pete if he would consider an assignment working as the science advisor to New Mexico’s senior senator at the time, Senator Pete V. Domenici. Pete (Lyons) said yes, absolutely, and he and Elaine sold their Los Alamos home and moved to Washington for a “two-year assignment” that evolved into the next 20 years of Pete’s career in public, government service.
Pete was a bit of an anomaly in Washington—a senior scientist and technical expert in a landscape dominated by young policy staffers; someone who continued to believe throughout his career that he should not bend to the politically expedient, but rather simply do and advocate for the right thing as dictated by the science in the hopes that the people and the policy would follow. As it turned out, his approach was a perfect fit with Senator Domenici and the Senator’s staff with whom he formed many life-long friendships. Working with Domenici, Pete contributed to many of the Senator’s legacy issues—working to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and equally importantly advocating for the development and implementation of nuclear energy solutions in the United States and around them world. Pete worked closely with the Senator on the publication of his book A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy.
Pete (Lyons) during his time with the Senator, and then on the Senate Energy Committee staff, was able to work on many issues critical to the national energy debates, and also issues important to the people of New Mexico. Pete advocated for establishment of funds to start the LANL Foundation, a non-profit in northern NM that among other things funds college scholarships for students across the counties of northern New Mexico. For Pete, this was a continuation of his life-long interest in education and helping the next generation. While working at Los Alamos, he had served for 16 years as a school board member and president of the Los Alamos Public School Board. He served long enough to be able to shake hands on the stage with his two elder sons as they graduated from Los Alamos High School. His time on the school board was emblematic of how he lived his life. He was consistently trying to do the right thing. His campaign sign (stored for a long time behind our backyard shed) said in large green block letters: “Elect a Concerned Parent: Pete Lyons for School Board.” He didn’t stray from what were frequently difficult decisions, including one centering on the proposed closure of one of the town’s junior high schools.
Pete’s time in Washington was marked with one personal tragedy when Elaine, his then-wife of 30 years suddenly passed away of a brain aneurysm just after the whole family had completed one of their by then-famous trips to the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado. The family grieved her loss and it raised questions of whether Pete would remain in Washington. He did continue on in DC and threw himself into the next chapters of his professional life—first serving as a Commissioner on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and then as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, with long-time friend, and fellow Los Alamos scientist Pete Miller. During their time in office, they made significant and lasting progress in nuclear energy policy. Jokingly referred to as “Pete and re-Pete,” the two proved to be a considerable force in the energy community. Following Miller’s retirement, Pete Lyons was then nominated as Assistant Secretary by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
During his entire career, Pete never was one to brag or boast. His children would frequently find out later about events that many people would find worthy of shouting from the mountaintops. Later, Pete would share the occasional picture of him briefing President Obama one-on-one in the Oval Office on the challenges of the day. One briefing in particular centered on the crisis in Fukushima, Japan.
In the final year of his life, Pete continued to receive accolades from professional societies and governments, lauding his years of service. One award that was particularly meaningful for him he received while he was in the midst of particularly grueling chemo-therapy treatments. In June 2020, he received the American Nuclear Society’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Medal “for his influential leadership in nuclear technology policy over five decades and for the vital role he played in the nuclear renaissance of the early 21st century.” As he relayed to his children, one of the highlights of his life was the personal phone call he received from the former president’s grand-daughter Susan Eisenhower, notifying him of the award. In his acceptance speech, Pete noted his admiration for President’s Eisenhower’s vision that he set out in his Atoms for Peace speech.
Pete leaves behind a tremendous legacy in the world of energy and national security policy, but among the things he was proudest of was his family. He is survived by his partner Peggy Lyon-Bull of Golden, Colorado, his three sons Daniel (wife Laura Zerbe), David (wife Laura Mullane) and Michael (fiancee Michelle Webster). Pete is also survived by his brother Kenneth Lyons of New Jersey (wife Sharon Lyons), niece Anita Lyons (partner Jim Cagle) of New Jersey, and nephew James Lyons (wife Janet Wu) of California. Pete was incredibly proud of his grandchildren and their many accomplishments. He would travel frequently halfway around the world to attend a soccer game, a ballet recital, or a family reunion with all of the grandkids running around. His grandchildren include Elaina (16) and Kyra (13); Noah (18) and Gwyneth (16); and Chloe (15), Caitlin (13), and Jack (11).
Given COVID restrictions, the family is delaying a memorial service until late summer/early fall 2021. Information will be posted to this site as plans can be made. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to any of Pete’s favorite charities, including the American Diabetes Association, Public Broadcasting of Colorado, the Denver Rescue Mission, the Nature Conservancy, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
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