Former principal, coach soon to be county's newest centenarian

By Lynette George
For the Herald Democrat
Lyndol Irby as a coach at Southmayd High School

Lyndol Irby of Denison likes people. It’s a good thing he does because, after 100 years, he’s met one or two.

The now soft-spoken, retired educator smiled and laughed often, but also shed a few tears as he reminisced about his long life. Photos of Irby and his loved ones throughout the decades adorn the tables and walls of his long-time home east of Denison. 

Irby was born July 31, 1921 in Cooper, located just outside of Paris in Delta County, the second smallest county in the state. He was the second of nine children and the eldest son of Titus Ardell Irby and Daisy Mae (Adams) Irby. His father was a Baptist preacher and a farmer, thus Irby and his siblings spent their childhood working the fields, but education was always a big part of Irby’s life. He remembers his first day of school in the tiny community of Hickory Grove, situated outside of Cooper, but close enough Irby could walk to school.

“They gave that ‘Baby Ray’ book and, within the hour, I’d already looked through it,” recalled Irby. “I took it back to the teacher and said ‘I’ve already finished this one.’ The teacher said, ‘You’d better keep it because we’re going through it again.’”

In 1930, the family moved to the Valley Summit community which was on the Gunter Highway about a quarter of a mile from Dorchester. Irby attended school in Dorchester and went on to graduate high school in Southmayd, never guessing he’d return one day as the school’s principal and a coach. He especially remembers his senior year trip to San Diego.

“We (members of his senior class) made a little money throughout the year off of a little skating rink we had in Southmayd,” said Irby. “For the trip, we had a bus and everybody brought some groceries. They took out the two back seats of the bus and a man came along and cooked. The superintendent had a relative out there (in California) and we got to park the bus on their property. We took our cots and I slept in my sleeping bag out under the stars. The whole trip was about three weeks.”

Lyndol Irby

After high school graduation, Irby remained in Gunter where his family had moved and his father ran a small store plus served as the preacher for the Baptist church. It was at the store that Irby first heard about one of the United States’ darkest hours.

“I was watching the store on Sunday and listening to the radio. It came on about 11:30 a.m. or something like that that the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor,” said Irby. “It was two or three blocks to the Baptist church so I ran down there just as they let out of the service and I told them (church members) about it."

Like many patriotic young men, Irby went to enlist in the military, starting with the United States Army. He was turned down due to a hernia he’d had since childhood. The determined young man plead with military officials to pay for the needed hernia operation so that he could do what he considered his patriotic duty, but his pleas didn’t work.

Some time later, due to heavy lifting, Irby was forced to have the hernia repaired himself and then went on to join the U.S. Army where he achieved the rank of captain. He also served in the National Guard.

Irby continued helping on the family farm and at the store. He didn’t think of attending college, until a school friend and the football coach from Southeastern Oklahoma State University showed up at his door. 

“ My friend had moved in with relatives in Durant, Oklahoma so he could go to Southeastern and play football,” remembered Irby. “The coach asked him who was the player who’d hit him hardest on the football field and what team did he play on. My friend said, ‘Why, it was my friend, Lyndol, and he was on my own team!”

The coach and Irby’s friend got into the coach’s car and drove to Gunter. The coach asked Irby if he’d like to attend Southeastern to which he replied, “I guess so.”

The next thing Irby knew, he was trying out on the Southeastern football field. 

“I went up there to try out on a Friday and by Saturday evening, I thought they were just using me for a tackling dummy. I was hurting so bad I could barely move,” said Irby. 

That Monday, Irby got the call that he was accepted as a student and football player at the university. Irby’s eyes welled with tears as he remembered his mother’s sacrifice when he left for college.

“She said no son of hers was going to college without a new suit, so she went and bought me a suit on credit. I’d never had a suit,” said Irby. 

Not sure what he wanted to major in, Irby began in the business department. To pay his tuition, he did janitorial work. He took a job as the night watchman at the airport in Durant, a job that paid the hard-working, young man 50 cents a week. It did, however, offer him a unique way to get some much-needed rest. 

“I slept in the planes,” said Irby.

During his second year at Southeastern, Irby met Bernice, a first year student. That young lady would later share almost 75 years of marriage with Irby.

Lyndol and Bernice Irby

“Bernice’ idea was to go to Southeastern so she could be an old-maid school teacher and put her three brothers through college,” recalled a grinning Irby. 

The determined young lady did indeed get her teaching degree, as well as a librarian certification, but none of her brothers ever attended college.

Though doing well in school and dating Bernice, Irby opted, as did many other young men, to drop out of college and travel to California to work in the naval ship yards in San Diego. He took Bernice a box of chocolates when he went to say good-bye to her at the boarding house she lived in.

“All the girls just cackled about me bring her a box of chocolates,” said Irby. “Those were different times, though.”

Irby worked in the shipyards and other areas for about a year before coming home. The return was prompted by Irby receiving word that there was going to be a big birthday party for Bernice who, Irby had also discovered, was dating another young man. He was determined to make a surprise visit to her party. He’d just taken over payments on a 1935 Chevrolet car so he had transportation, however, gas and money were in short supply. He asked his co-workers if anyone wanted a ride to Texas for $10. He got several takers and off they went on what would be a memorable trip.

“When I travel, I sleep at night, so I let one of the guys who’d been after me to drive take over the wheel,” said Irby. “I kept telling him that he had to really keep an eye on the gas gauge because there weren’t many gas stations in the desert. I woke up several times and asked if we were okay on gas and he said we were, but then I woke up and we were stopped. He’d let the car run out of gas!”

The closest gas station was closed for the night, but a passerby stopped and offered them some gas out of his own vehicle’s tank. The problem was that no one had a gas can. The only container between them was a Coke bottle, so the young men syphoned gasoline from the good Samaritan’s gas tank one bottle at a time until they had enough gasoline to get them to the next open gas station. Despite the slight set-back, Irby got to Bernice’s birthday party just in time. 

“I got a pretty decent welcome,” said a still-grinning Irby.

The two were married in 1943 in a double ceremony with Bernice’s sister and boyfriend.

After working several years at the former Johns-Manville plant in Denison, Irby finally decided what he really wanted to do as a career. He returned to college, earning his degree in education. 

“I just felt like I needed to be a school teacher,” said Irby,  “I had a great life working with kids and I hope I’ve helped some of them."

Irby began his teaching career in an all-girls class in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

“I was much younger then, didn’t look hard and crusty, and those little ladies worked for me like a bunch of turks,” said Irby who taught business office courses such as shorthand and accounting principals.

Irby then continued his career in education by returning to Southmayd, serving as a principal and coach, and even recruiting his wife to work there as a teacher, coach and drill team instructor. From Southmayd, the Irbys came back to Denison where he worked at Central Ward and Hyde Park Elementary Schools, McDaniel and Hughes Junior High Schools and at Denison High School before retiring after almost 30 years. Bernice taught at McDaniel Junior High School then served as the librarian at Denison High School before retirement.

In addition to a career in education and his family, Irby was active in American Cancer Society, was instrumental in starting the Denison Girls Club and served in several other civic organizations. He also remains an active member of Parkside Baptist Church.

The Irby’s remained devoted to each other, raising a daughter and son, Pamela Irby and Lyn Irby, often working together, as well as traveling. Irby loved to ride motorcycles and the couple took several trips aboard his two-wheeled rides, first a Harley-Davidson and then a Honda Goldwing, the second one to be purchased in Grayson County, according to Irby’s daughter. Some of Irby’s favorite destinations were Big Bend and the Grand Canyon. But traveling to anywhere is worth the effort, according to Irby, who says he believes the United States is “God’s pick” and "the crown of the land." He says he regrets not getting to see Alaska and still wishes he could have another plane ride through the Grand Canyon. 

“The United States has everything,” said Irby with enthusiasm.

Irby lost his life partner and travel companion, Bernice, several years ago, just a few weeks short of their 75th wedding anniversary. 

To pass the time these days, Irby tries to remain active and as up to date as possible with today’s technology. He uses his iPhone and the Internet and even has Facebook, though he hasn’t mastered them completely per Pam Irby. Still driving, the determined 100-year-old treats himself to chicken wings one or more times a week at one of his favorite eateries, Chicken Express, and even drives to east Texas to visit with one of his two remaining brothers. He’s also active in his church and enjoys visitors anytime anyone has a chance to come see him. 

“I really like people,” said Irby.

Irby’s former students, friends, neighbors and co-workers are welcomed to attend his 100th birthday reception from 2-4 p.m. July 31 at Parkside Baptist Church in Denison.