Tyler, activist for battered women

Staff WriterJanuary 13, 2006 

Phyllis Tyler, a Raleigh community activist who helped start the area's first center for battered women, died of heart failure last week in a Maryland retirement community. She was 88.

Tyler is the mother of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler, but some thought she was the better writer. She wrote a column called Beautiful Lofty People for the old Spectator magazine in Raleigh and the Independent Weekly in Durham.

"She herself was beautiful and lofty," said W.W. Finlator, retired pastor of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. "You felt a quiet strength behind this woman."

Bernie Reeves, who founded The Spectator in 1978, said Tyler came to him one day wanting to write about a singing trash man.

"She wanted to do a column about the unsung heroes," Reeves said. "The idea was to write about people who did nice things that did not get noticed."

Beautiful Lofty People appeared in The Spectator for most of a decade, Reeves added. "Towards the end, she got a little more political than I liked."

Tyler died Jan. 3 at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville, outside of Baltimore. After 35 years in Raleigh, Tyler moved to Maryland with her husband in 1988 to be close to their daughter. She had been troubled with Alzheimer's for several years, her husband, Lloyd Tyler, a retired chemist, said Thursday.

Social worker, teacher

An activist spirit fueled by her Quaker faith was at the heart of Tyler's work.

Tyler was a social worker who taught at Meredith and N.C. State University. She helped to form the Raleigh Women's Shelter, her husband said.

Tyler and her husband regularly participated in the Raleigh Peace Vigil against the Vietnam War. The couple also helped organize protests on Fayetteville Street Mall against the arms race and against injustice in Central America.

"She was totally against war," Finlator said.

During the 1970s, the Tylers gave up their jobs to live in the Middle East to help refugees in the occupied Gaza territory.

Tyler also tried to save Velma Barfield, a Robeson County housewife who was sentenced to death in 1978 after she confessed to killing her mother, her boyfriend and two others.

In 1984, after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Barfield became the first woman executed in the United States. Tyler wrote, "She's on the other side of the angels, and she is strategically placed. To execute her to fulfill a point of law is not just a personal tragedy, it is a terrible waste."

Tyler was born June 22, 1917, in Nashwauk, Minn. Her mother was a school teacher. Her father was the superintendent of an iron mine.

Tyler's activism was evident even in her youth. As a teen she picketed her father's mines to protest injustices against the workers.

In 1938, Tyler met her future husband at the University of Minnesota, where they were both students. The couple would have celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary in March.

During the 1940s, in response to World War II, the Tylers joined Celo, a cooperative community near Burnsville, north of Asheville, where they tended goats and raised organic vegetables.

"We strongly believed in peace," her husband said, "and felt that cooperation was more important than anything else."

Making world better

In 1952, the Tylers moved to Raleigh. The couple became noted for their work with the Wake Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Witness For Peace and the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America.

"What you essentially do is try to make the world a better place for everybody, not just yourself," Tyler said in a 1988 News & Observer story, before the couple moved to Maryland.

She is survived by her husband and three children: Anne of Baltimore; Seth, a professor at the University of Maine; and Jonathan of Edmonton, Canada.

(News researcher Denise Jones contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Thomasi McDonald can be reached at 829-4533 or tmcdonal@newsobserver.com.

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