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Matthew Lyon, UC Berkeley assistant vice chancellor for public affairs, dies at age 45
17 February 2002

Office of Media Relations

Photo album: seven images

Matt Lyon

Matthew Lyon
Peg Skorpinski photo

BERKELEY - Matthew M. Lyon, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at the University of California, Berkeley, whose diverse talents spanned journalism, politics, athletics and art, died unexpectedly on Saturday (Feb. 16) at the age of 45.

Lyon collapsed in Seattle, Wash., having suffered an apparent cardiac arrest while working out in the fitness center of a hotel. An avid fan of Cal Athletics, he had accompanied the men's basketball team to its game against the University of Washington.

Lyon came to UC Berkeley in January 1999 to lead the Office of Public Affairs, which includes media and government relations. His previous career experiences, his deep appreciation for what he called "the life of the mind," and his collaborative spirit made him the perfect match for the job and endeared him to many in the campus community.

"We will miss his leadership in public affairs, his concern about the welfare of the campus and his great humanity," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, who knew Lyon for nearly 10 years. "I will miss one of the best friends I ever had."

In Berdahl's previous job as president of the University of Texas at Austin, Lyon was first his speechwriter, and then directed many other aspects of that campus's public affairs.

Born on May 21, 1956, in Willimantic, Conn., Lyon grew up on a series of college campuses, as his father was an American Studies professor. When Lyon was 12, the family moved to Amherst, Mass., where his father and the father of his future wife, New York Times reporter Katie Hafner, were among the first faculty of Hampshire College. Lyon graduated from that college in 1980 with an undergraduate degree in American Studies.

A talented writer, Lyon became a stringer for The New York Times. He then worked briefly for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., before moving to Texas in the early 1980s to work for the Texas Observer, where he was associate editor.

"It was an alternative paper that was highly influential. They were rabble-rousers, but in a very responsible way," said his wife.

Lyon then went to work for Lloyd Doggett, a Democratic state senator from Austin who is now a Texas congressman. He next worked as chief speechwriter and deputy press secretary to then-Texas governor Mark W. White. In 1987, he signed on as national issues director for U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, who was running for president.

"He was absolutely passionate about politics," said Hafner of her husband, who worked on numerous state and national political campaigns.

When Lyon's brother, Christopher, became ill, Lyon left politics to work as a communications director with Park Kinetic Designs, Inc. The position allowed him to spend more time with his sibling, who died in 1989.

In 1993, Hafner met Berdahl, who then was president of UT Austin. She became convinced after speaking with him that her husband should work for Berdahl and arranged for them to meet. Berdahl offered Lyon a job, and "they've been total soul mates ever since," said Hafner.

After working for a short time in San Francisco as a senior vice president for Austin-based Public Strategies, Inc., Lyon decided to dedicate his professional life once more to public higher education.

At UC Berkeley, Lyon set out to define and communicate the goals of a diverse campus in a strategic way. His background in journalism and politics, his lifelong familiarity with academic environments, and his keen interest in technology and Web communications helped him effectively lead a team of more than 35 professionals.

"Matt transformed public affairs at Berkeley, intent on making it the best in its field," said Berdahl. "He set exacting standards for himself and generously shared his energies and expertise with his colleagues."

He also continued to write and his speechwriting reflected a poetic sensibility that came from his love of poetry, particularly the works of James Merrill, Wendell Berry and Wallace Stevens.

Donald McQuade, vice chancellor for university relations, added that Lyon "educated the Berkeley campus about the best practices of strategic communications" and praised him for "his political acumen, nimble artistry, collaborative good will and uncompromising determination to inspire UC Berkeley to excel in this increasingly important arena in university life."

At the time of his death, Lyon was writing a book about strategic communications for Harvard Business School Press. Previously, he had co-authored with his wife a best-selling history of the Internet, "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet."

Hafner said that, recently, Lyon said how much he loved working in public affairs because of the range of issues he encountered every day. "He was really happy," she said, adding that his involvement in former president Bill Clinton's visit to campus in late January was a particular highlight. Under Lyon's leadership, the campus undertook its first live webcast, the Clinton speech at Zellerbach Hall.

Lyon was a gifted photographer and artist whose mother is a dancer and sculptor, and he designed his own home in Sonoma County. He took pride in overseeing the annual competition at UC Berkeley for the Dorothea Lange photography fellowship.

Lyon also loved sports, and was particularly fond of tennis and basketball. While his father was a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, young Lyon learned to shoot baskets from Dean Smith, the Tarheels coach. Lyon played tennis in college and, recently, with UC Berkeley colleagues. An avid fan of the campus's men's basketball team, he often traveled to away games and usually stood behind the team bench during home games at Haas Pavilion.

"He really respected how hard these kids worked," his wife said.

Said Ben Braun, the men's basketball coach, "He was as big a supporter as we've had. It (his death) was very tragic." Braun was with Lyon when he died.

Lyon is survived by his wife, Katie Hafner, and their daughter, Zoe Lyon, of Berkeley; his parents, Richard Colton and Denny McTee Lyon, of Austin, Texas; and his brothers, Jeremy Lyon of Coos Bay, Ore., and Alexander Lyon of Austin.

A campus memorial has been scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28 in the Club Room of the Haas Pavilion, to be followed by a private service in Sonoma County.