WWJ, A Jesuit And The Bomb
In August of 1995, two significant events in world history celebrated an anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the Bomb on Japan and 75th anniversary of WWJ (the first commercial radio station in the United States). While these events may appear to be unrelated, documents have recently surfaced which connect my great-uncle, Father Michael DeLisle Lyons, to both events.
When my research began, many family myths about this radio pioneer were confirmed, but another story emerged. It's a complex story of a young electronics genius who became a Jesuit priest stationed in India, before the country achieved its independence from the British. He fell in love with a nun and had two daughters. He secretly became the supplier of beryllium for the initiators of the first atomic weapons, and he finally died in obscurity from Chronic Beryllium Lung Disease. His whole story might make a good book or movie, though its truth is so strange it probably would not be believed were it not for the documents and photos left behind.
This story begins with the early years of radio and the pioneers, many of whom, were young teenagers, like Michael DeLisle Lyons.
By 1919, several amateur radio clubs had formed in the Detroit area. The most significant of which was called the Detroit Amateur Radio Association or D.A.R.A. It was most likely from this club that Mike became noticed by the Scripps family of The Detroit News. Perhaps, it was the publication of The Detroit Radio News, in January of 1919, which first caught their attention. Mike was the Editor.
At the same time, throughout the world the owners of newspapers were concerned with this new developing technology of wireless communication. Newspapers feared that if radio became popular nobody would buy a newspaper, and they would be out of business. At The Detroit News many were also concerned that if people heard that they were going to financially back the development of a radio station, they would become the object of ridicule. Their involvement in developing their station began without publicity. In fact, many of the first commercial radio stations were built and financed by newspapers.
Word had gotten out about the radio transmitter, and antenna installed by Mike and Frank at their parents' house, which was located at 463 Green Avenue in Delray. The amateur radio, 8AM, could transmit further than most of the other amateur radios in Detroit due to the height of its antenna, which stood towering in the backyard, and let off what many of they neighbors felt was an irritating buzzing sound. Frank was proud of this station, since it was the first licensed to him.
The Detroit News paid Mike to supervise and assist in the installation of 8MK in the second floor of their building, located at the corner of Lafayette and 2nd Avenue in Detroit. The Consolidated Radio Call Book from May 1922 indicates on page 229: “8MK . . . Radio News and Music, Inc. (M. D. Lyons), Lafayette and 2nd Aves., Detroit, Mich.” The owners of The Detroit News even asked him to have 8MK licensed in his name with his address at 463 Green Avenue. This was done to keep some distance between the radio station and the newspaper. However, Mike became angry when he heard that they had hired someone else to install the antenna. This antenna proved to be faulty, and Mike had to rush to repair and redesign the antenna before the first scheduled broadcast. For this repair work Mike was owed an additional $500, which was quite a sum. Yet, Mike was never paid for this work. He became bitter, and cut his ties with The Detroit News. Mike also had a hard time getting the $25 per month salary he was owed as a supervisor until the patent battle between DeForest and Marconi had been settled around 1932. The fact is, this station could no longer be considered an amateur operation, since people were being hired and paid to set-up and run its broadcasts, which were to officially begin on the 20th of August, 1920. Before its first broadcast 8MK's license was transferred to The Detroit News, and later on March 3, 1922 the call letters would be changed to WWJ, possibly named after W. J. Scripps.
Since that fateful date, several have challenged WWJ’s claim as the first
commercial radio station, foremost is KDKA of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which
began broadcasting on November 2, 1920 (nearly 11 weeks after WWJ). KDKA did
receive the first commercial license from the government on October 27, 1920
nearly a year before WWJ received their license from the government. However,
the father of radio, famed inventor Lee DeForest, appears to have settled the
dispute in 1936 when he said: "On the night of August 20, 1920, the first commercial
radio station in all the world was opened. And every night and every day since
that momentous beginning WWJ has maintained this service."
Evidence appears to point to the fact that 8MK, now called WWJ, can now rightfully claim that they were the first commercial radio station in the United States, and not an amateur operation as KDKA has claimed. Mike and others were paid to install and run the station, and should share in the honor of developing the world's first commercial station. This was not a hobby for the young men involved in 8MK's development. Their interests took them to further adventures in early radio.
In August of 1921, Mike, his brother Frank and their friend Ed Clark (who
started WJR) convinced the police in Toledo, Ohio to allow them to install
a radio in one of their cars. They wanted to show them how radio could help
them catch criminals faster. Mike and Ed sat in the back seat of a patrol car
with a transmitter/receiver stretched across the whole back seat. Frank operated
a transmitter/receiver in the police station. Soon after the car was on patrol
a call came from the station, informing the car's occupants of the address
where a breaking and entering was taking place. The patrol car sped to the
scene and quickly apprehended the perpetrator. This was the first time a radio
had been installed in a police car. News of the event reached several papers
throughout the United States and RCA quickly received a contract to install
radios in many of this nation's patrol cars.
On August 6, 1922 Mike left Detroit and entered the Society of Jesus or The Jesuits. Mike entered St. Stanislaus Jesuit Seminary in Florissant, Missouri as a novice.
On August 16, 1924 Mike was enrolled by the Jesuits into St. Louis University's
School of Philosophy and Science. Following the Jesuit tradition, he was well
educated with an especially strong background in languages and sciences. It
was during Mike's final academic year (1926-1927), that many events would coincide
to shape his future. In that year Mike wrote an article in the January-February
1927 Physics Bulletin entitled: Plan to Utilize Radio to Hasten the Conversion
of Asia. Mike's article had received notice at many levels throughout the Jesuits
and the Catholic Church hierarchy. Mike proposed setting up radio stations
in three locations in India, two in China, one in Japan and one in the Philippines
at a cost not to exceed $25,000 per station. His idea was to utilize these
stations to broadcast their messages to the masses, and even into the palaces
of the maharajahs in the hopes of speedier conversion into the Catholic faith.
It would not surprise anyone to know that Mike would eventually become a friend of Father Coughlin of Detroit, "The Radio Priest" and helped him build his radio.
In his final year at St. Louis University, Mike also studied Geology under Father James Bernard Macelwane, who established the Seismological Society of America. Father Macelwane would later be granted "Q-level" security clearance by the Atomic Energy Program in 1948. Q-level security clearance was developed by the government to limit the number of people with access to nuclear facilities. It is believed that Father Macelwane assisted in guiding the U.S. Government in locating strategic minerals, and quite possibly in locating sites for below ground weapons development. Mike had also acquired Q-level security clearance.
During his final year at St. Louis University, Mike also received notice that he had been chosen for the missions of northern India. Mike graduated university by finishing his final courses at Sacred Heart College at Shembaganur in the Madura District of India.
On November 21, 1933 Mike was ordained at St. Mary's College in the foothills
of the Himalaya Mountains. It was here that Mike heard the words that every
young Jesuit scholastic yearns to hear: "Tu es sacerdos
in aeternum," or "You are a priest for eternity."
From 1927 to 1941 Mike served as a Jesuit missionary in Allahabad, Bettiah, Chuhari, Bhagalpur and Kurseong only leaving once in 1931 to study Theology in Belgium for a short time. Mike served as a missionary under Bishop Bernard J. Sullivan, S.J.D.D., who was the Bishop of Patna, India from 1929 to 1946. Mike's ability to speak several different dialects of the native languages became well known. Yet, the majority of Mike's work focused on the missionary work with the poorest castes of India.
Through his work Mike eventually became assigned to a mission where he met again a beautiful young Anglo-Indian woman, who served as a Nun of the Sacred Heart caring for the sick and orphaned. Her name was Agnes Julius Shah. Mike remembered meeting Agnes at a school in Bettiah. She was only 15-years-old then. She was now 26-years-old, 12 years younger than Mike. Soon Mike could think of nobody else, and secretly in his prayers he asked for another mission to take him away from the temptation he was feeling. His prayers were soon answered when he was reassigned to a small nearby village in Gaya.
In Gaya, Mike spent much of his time with the converted depressed classes, or lower castes. Later, Mike began to have problems with malaria, and Bishop Sullivan decided that Mike would need the care of a live-in nun with training in nursing, if he was to carry out his missionary work. Yet, having a woman live in a house with a priest, even if she was a nun, would not have looked proper. The Bishop decided to send two sisters. As fate would have it, one of the sisters was Agnes Shah. They fell in love, and soon Agnes was with child.
By July of 1940 the Father Provincial would begin to hear that Mike was involved with Agnes, but no action would be taken until it was confirmed. Shortly after July, Mike left the priesthood, and on November 27, 1940 the first daughter was born to Agnes and Mike. Her name is Esther Mary Lyons. The new parents were very excited, but in the eyes of the church Mike had taken "flight with a woman." Knowing that he would soon be asked to resign from the Jesuits, Mike began to seek work as a journalist in Dehli. Mike bought his own press and began publishing a newspaper called: The Voice of the Poor. Eventually, Mike moved his new family to Calcutta, where he continued his work as a priest with the poor and wrote articles on India.
In 1941, Mike officially resigned from The Society of Jesus. That year Mike also met the "great soul" Mohandas K. Gandhi or as most refer to him today "Mahatma Gandhi." In a letter dated December 28th, 1941 Mike wrote:
"I saw Mahatma Gandhi to ask him his ideas on uplift work . .
. I may say I asked him point blank if he had any hopes for the removal
of poverty from India, and the old man, lying on a carpet on the bare
ground, smiling replied that he really did.
"Well," he replied, "It is like this," and he proceeded to tell me that
a fire spreads and that the true solution in one place will spread all
over, and I had to seek the true solution in one place. I replied at
once that I hoped to find that fire of true reform burning in his village,
to which the old man laughingly replied, "I can't say you'll find it
here." Gandhi proceeded to state that the true solution required the
spirit of sacrifice, which he was trying to give the people."
In the next few years, a friendship would develop between Mike and Gandhi. On the 10th of December, 1941 Mike met Jawaharlal Nehru, who was living in a beautiful home in a fine compound called Ananad Bhawan, or "Abode of Happiness," at Allahabad.
In March of 1942, Mike was reassigned by church authorities to St. Xavier's Mission of Robertsganj in Mirzapur, Upper Pradesh (just west of Patna). From there Mike moved to Meerut, India in 1943 and began increased contact with many American soldiers, who were stationed in India. It was through these acquaintances that Mike finally came into the service of the Federal Economic Administration (FEA) in 1944. In addition, on February 23, 1944 Agnes gave birth to their second daughter, Violet Rita in Saharanpur. Soon after Violet’s birth Mike returned to the church as a secular priest in Allahabad, and served as a US Army chaplain.
Meanwhile, Mike also gained employment with the FEA, and was asked to locate strategic minerals in India, especially beryllium, a key element required for the detonation of a nuclear bomb. In a letter dated January 2, 1945 and marked "confidential," a Mr. H. W. Witt, Procurement Officer of the FEA wrote the following to Mr. Arthur Z. Gardiner, of the Foreign Procurement and Development Branch in Washington, D.C.:
|"Lyons is particularly well fitted for this type
of work. He is an indefatigable worker with rarely found knowledge of
India and her peoples. He has been 17 years in the villages, knows many
of the native languages and obtains information that I doubt could be
obtained by anyone else in India, including the British. Lyons spent
some time in Bihar. He reported on occurrences of beryl and other minerals....
At present Lyons is in South India. His reports to date on this area
comprise about 100 pages. They cover a wide range of interests, including
general geological information, mineral occurrences (not limited to beryl
This letter was copied to Messrs. Babb, Hummer, Macy and Dr. Hulin all of the State Department.
Family members tell me that Father Mike was in the United States briefly in 1945, to participate in the first A-bomb test at the Trinity site in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations accompanied Mike on his visit to Detroit and New Mexico, and interviewed several neighbors in Detroit to ensure his security. However in 1947, Mike was officially brought back to the United States by our government.
Through Mike’s daughter Esther, we have now learned Mike received council from church authorities, who encouraged him to return to the priesthood. Mike decided to return to life as a priest when he returned to the United States in 1947. Mike also planned to continue his work for India and his work with the U.S. government. Upon return, Mike lost contact with Sister Agnes and his daughters. Attempts to contact Sister Agnes through church authorities and missionaries were unsuccessful. Missionaries, who served with Father Mike were under orders not to communicate with Father Mike once he returned to the U.S.
From 1946 to 1947, Mike published several articles on India, as India gained its independence from British rule. These articles appeared in the December 22, 1946 issue of The New York Times, and the January and February 1947 issues of Columbia magazine.
In 1946, Bishop Sullivan returned home to Denver, Colorado and St. Regis University. Mike later followed to Arvada, Colorado which was about 15 minutes from St. Regis University and Boulder. From a piece of property on a hill facing the mountains and Boulder to the west, Mike began The Radio Communication Company and The Beryl Ores Company. The Radio Communication Company was set up to provide people, who lived over the first ridge of mountains west of Boulder with a means of contacting the sheriff or friends, since telephone lines could not be installed. This was the business that most of the people in the area knew Mike owned and ran. Eventually, the townspeople of Arvada made him the President of the Chamber of Commerce. However, they never knew he was a priest until they attended his funeral in 1974.
The Beryl Ores Company was set up to supply the U.S. Government with beryllium for the triggering mechanisms of nuclear weapons. A few men worked grinding the beryl crystals into a power, which was later heated and treated with chemicals to extract the beryllium. This beryllium was often delivered by walking it over to the Rocky Flats Plant, which made the triggers for nuclear weapons. The Rocky Flats Plant is about 200 yards from the property and house where Mike lived and worked. More recently, the Rocky Flats Plant made the W-88 warhead for the Trident II missile.
In 1970, Mike began having difficulties breathing and was put on oxygen, but he couldn't understand why, since he never smoked. Mike had also been brought back into the priesthood officially. He was also allowed by the local Bishop to travel to North and South Dakota, and other neighboring states and serve communion as a priest. As 1974 approached Mike knew he was dying. He contacted the local bishop and asked if he could be buried with the Jesuits, near Bishop Sullivan (who died in 1970) at Mount Olivet Cemetery. The bishop refused. However, Mike managed to buy a plot just outside the area owned by the Jesuits, which would position him at the foot of Bishop Sullivan.
Father Michael D. Lyons died August 17, 1974. The certificate of death indicates that he died of "acute respiratory failure." A publication provided to the public by the Rocky Flats Plant states: beryllium dust is toxic and can cause a lung disease called "chronic beryllium disease (similar to asbestosis). . ."
Just before President Clinton left office, he signed a bill entitled: “Energy
Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act,” which would allow
families to receive a one payment of $150,000 in compensation for the health
care costs or loss of a family member exposed to Beryllium. Jeff McQueen filed
a claim on behalf of Esther and Violet, which was accepted as valid and paid
in December of 2002.
If you are curious about Mike's middle name, it's "DeLisle." You see his mother's side of the family descended from the French voyagers who came with Cadillac in 1701 to found Detroit. In fact, Mike was a descendant of Francois Bienvenu "dit" DeLisle, who served as Cadillac's lieutenant, and who was also Detroit's first tavernkeeper. Many other familiar old French family names can be found in Mike's heritage, such as St. Aubin, Livernois, Riopelle and Campau (Campeau). Mike was truly a native son of Detroit.
Meanwhile, for the family, there has been good news. For some time now Mike's family in the U.S. has been in touch with their new cousins. Mike's daughter Esther now lives in Australia and has written a book about her life, entitled: “UNWANTED!” Violet lives in Dehra Dun, India and owns a school.
This article is © 1995 (Original) and 2002 (Revised) Jeffrey
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