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Ernest Eugene "Gene" Lyons | 1941-2011

Gene Lyons, Strawberry Festival grand stage manager, dies


If a civic organization in Plant City needed something done, Gene Lyons was often the man who would do it.

"He loved to be involved," said his wife, Gail. "He never wanted to be the center of attention. He wanted to help, but he wanted to be behind the scenes."

For 27 years, Mr. Lyons was the grand stage manager for the Florida Strawberry Festival, making sure concerts by some of the biggest names in country music went smoothly.

"He made sure that whatever was in the contracts got done," his wife said. "Getting them to and from the airport, taking them here and there. If they wanted green M&Ms or hamburgers and hot dogs, he'd make sure they had them. And he also made sure they got on the stage on time."

Mr. Lyons also was active with such organizations as East Hillsborough Ducks Unlimited, of which he was past president, and the Plant City Elks.

For the past 19 years, whatever he did, his wife was at his side.

"He'd go to his job, and I'd go to my job, but the 4 o'clock phone call was always 'What are we going to do tonight?' " she said.

Mr. Lyons passed away Nov. 5 at age 70. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer just a few months ago, and remained active until just days before he died.

"One of the last things I said to him just before he died was 'Well, Gene, we never had a boring day together,' " his wife said. "And he said, 'No, dear, we haven't.' "

Mr. Lyons was born in Tampa and attended Hillsborough High School, then moved to the Brandon area in his late teens. He lived in Hillsborough County his entire life.

He met Gail, his second wife, who also was from Tampa, while he was doing volunteer work at the race track in Sebring. He was driving a tow truck, clearing wrecked cars from the track. She was serving food and offered him a cup of coffee. It was apparently unrequited love at first sight.

"He chased me for eight years," Gail Lyons said.

At that time, Mr. Lyons had left his career as a salesman and had bought Cork Country Corner & Hardware. The store was something of a local landmark, a place where farmers and other workers would gather every morning and talk about what was going on in the community. Mr. Lyons became so well known that people called him the Mayor of Cork.

His loved all his community work, but the Strawberry Festival was probably his favorite. Over the years, he worked with many of country music's biggest stars. George Jones, Merle Haggard, Don Williams and Mel Tillis — who had been Mr. Lyons' neighbor when they were growing up in Tampa — were among his favorites. But he was never star-struck. The performers were just people, and Mr. Lyons was just doing a job.

His wife was there with him, sharing the workload and helping to make life in Plant City just a little bit more enjoyable for everybody.

"He married me, and gave me Plant City," Gail Lyons said. "You can't ask for more than that."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lyons is survived by his son Edward, his daughter Rebecca Drake, his stepdaughter Jennifer Chamberlain, his sisters Alice Boyette, Lilly Leyden and Esther Douglas, and seven grandchildren.

Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at

Gene Lyons, Strawberry Festival grand stage manager, dies 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 3:31am]
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