Jim Dyson knew death was coming. After being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, he started planning his funeral and writing his obituary. Everything went off the way he’d hoped.
What he didn’t choreograph were the stories people told about him afterward — the rides he gave to kids looking for their first jobs, the references he’d write, the college tours he’d go along for, the kid he pushed to attend a top high school, the kid he picked up from juvenile detention, “all of these little things that he was doing behind the scenes,” said Bebe Hobson, a mentee, colleague and friend.
Mr. Dyson spent his adult life ministering to kids through the religious organization Young Life, promoting literacy through a program at Largo’s Ridgecrest Elementary School, building and being part of a community.
He died Oct. 28. He was 70.
The University of Florida had started desegregating sports when Mr. Dyson moved from Philadelphia to run track on a scholarship. It was the late 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. He had long hair, a mustache and mutton-chop sideburns, said Amy Dyson, his wife.
But she almost wasn’t.
After they’d dated for a while, she ended things.
Mr. Dyson had told her he was a Christian, but she didn’t see a man of faith, “so I broke up with him.”
She wanted to be with someone who shared her beliefs. “He started rethinking things,” she said.
The couple married, and Mr. Dyson started working with Young Life, doing outreach to middle school and high school kids. They moved to Largo, about two blocks from the predominantly Black neighborhood of Ridgecrest.
His faith was a calling to make things right, Mr. Dyson felt, to help kids who were not starting out on a level playing field.
Hobson was just 12 when he snuck into a Young Life high school trip with friends and met Mr. Dyson. He became a volunteer with the organization, then worked there part-time, then full-time.
“Because of Jim’s leadership and opening doors and making room at the table for me, I’m now a senior vice president for the organization,” Hobson said. “Jim always saw stuff in me that I did not see in myself.”
Mr. Dyson, one of the few white athletes on his college track team, knew what it was like to be in the minority, Hobson said. He encouraged Hobson to be true to himself and his African-American identity.
“Jim would say that the one thing he couldn’t be was Black, so he put me around other Black men who could give me what he couldn’t,” Hobson said in a Young Life article about their relationship. “That’s how I came to understand what inclusion really looked like. When you feel invited and valued, you can come with your whole self and bridge the gap. Jim allowed me to be me.”
Mr. Dyson also devoted himself to reading and studying Black culture, and when he’d come back feeling like an expert, Hobson would remind him those stories weren’t all inclusive. Mr. Dyson always listened.
“He’d say, ‘Thank you, Bebe.’”
In 2014, Mr. Dyson started a reading program, called Panther Pals, at Ridgecrest Elementary School, gathering 100 volunteers to serve as readers and mentors for kids who needed extra help. He always asked about their lives and their families, said Sharon K. Johnson, Ridgecrest’s family and community liaison.
“He was faithful and present even as his health declined.”
In September, a library for young readers opened at the Jim Dyson Young Life Center in Largo. It was named Mr. Jim’s Little Neighborhood Library.
Byron Dyson grew up watching his father minister to neighborhood kids, but he always had time for his own, connecting with them through sports, nature and faith. He did the same with his grandchildren — attending soccer games, dance recitals and diving into technology and history.
As his disease progressed, Mr. Dyson struggled to accept help, but he adapted with each loss, showed his Panther Pals how his chair worked and explained to them what was happening to his body.
“They learned a new kind of love,” one volunteer wrote to his wife.
Mr. Dyson also planned for a time when his family, friends and community could say goodbye.
They did, on a YMCA football field one bright Sunday, with masks and folding chairs set far apart and a frequently disinfected microphone.
“Shall we pray?” said Jack Stephenson, minister at Largo’s Anona United Methodist Church. “Our Lord in God, Jim was convinced that Jesus came to launch God’s kingdom and that it was a kingdom of love and righteousness, and that meant justice. Invite us all into that kingdom. Where Jim left off his work, let us pick up that work.”