In the course of one class discussion, he made a remark that has been etched in my mind ever since: "The most dangerous weapons that mankind has available to him are words."
The poignant comment, made by one who was among only a handful of black teachers employed by the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, came to mind last week in the midst of the national flap over remarks made by broadcasting personality Don Imus about the Rutgers women's basketball team.
Imus' firing from MSNBC and CBS Radio networks and his subsequent apology meeting with the women from Rutgers has revealed again how this nation continues to struggle with racism and hate speech.
Sadly, while there have been some painful lessons learned as the result of this morality play on our national airwaves, there are a few issues which remain to be examined by the national commentators.
While being reminded of Lyles' remarks, I was also reminded of the outrageous behavior of a very few of the students in our classroom whose actions spoke to their lack of regard for an authority figure of a different race.
In some instances they were defiant, so much so, that they placed the teacher in an uncomfortable position with regard to maintaining class control.
With his controlled and even-tempered demeanor, he dealt with the situation as required, in some instances sending the offending party to the principal's office. I always came away from these altercations of defiance feeling we were all a bit diminished as the result of the words and actions of a very few.
While the Imus remarks were painful to these young women in the flower of their college careers, the discussion that is missing from the debate should not be about race, but about another, more vexing problem that of income inequality.
In the recently published book "The Trouble With Diversity How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality," author Walter Benn Michaels, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, focuses at length on how our major preoccupation with ethnic and racial diversity has diverted national attention from the even more serious issue of income inequality, in essence providing us with more color-blind institutions that turn a blind eye to this lingering social injustices.
At the time of his stellar career as an educator and historian, Lyles earned the respect and admiration of people of all races by working in the public school system at a time when comparable levels of career achievement were not available to blacks in the private sector in Southwestern Indiana.
Conversely, with Imus, here you have a multimillionaire, 67-year-old white professional broadcaster who flaunts his lavish lifestyle and limousine liberalism on the sleeves of the western shirts he wears with his cowboy hat. He demeaned the accomplishments of a team that is predominately black.
It is hard to imagine that even with the national exposure this tawdry episode has provided the team, that any of its members will ever be able to achieve the level of economic success, celebrity and prominence of a nationally syndicated radio personality.
Imus will no doubt survive and emerge from the ashes of this controversy a renewed potent force in the broadcasting industry.
Meanwhile, the nation will remain tangled up in the issues of race, celebrity, income inequality and the dangerous nature of words Lyles warned us about so very long ago.
David Coker is an Evansville free-lance writer