Founded as Arkansas College by Arkansas Presbyterians, Lyon College opened its doors in September 1872. Originally located on the "downtown" block now occupied by the First Presbyterian Church of Batesville, the college remained under the guidance of the Long family for much of its first four decades – Rev. Isaac J. Long serving as president from the college’s founding until his death in 1891 and his son, Eugene R. Long, serving two terms as president, 1891 to 1895 and 1897 to 1913. The college was co-educational from the beginning and remained dedicated to a classical course of study into the early 20th century.
The college expanded its physical plant after World War I by purchasing land in the East End Heights section of town, later known as the middle campus. The boom years of the 1920s faded quickly, however, as Arkansas sank into depression.
By the early 1930s, the very survival of the college was in jeopardy. Through the untiring efforts of a group of Batesville supporters and alumni and the generosity of Arkansas Presbyterian families, the college recovered in time to participate in the post-World War II G.I. boom that filled the nation's classrooms.
In 1952 Dr. Paul M. McCain succeeded Rev. John D. Spragins as president of the college. McCain's 17-year tenure as president witnessed steady progress including the move to the current campus in 1954, accreditation by the North Central Association (NCA) in 1959, physical expansion during the 1960s, and the geographic and ethnic diversification of the student body.
During the 1970s and 1980s, President Dan C. West oversaw the implementation of significant curricular reforms, the introduction of innovative fundraising techniques, and the development of the Scottish Heritage Program. A bequest of more than $14 million by Jean Brown of Hot Springs in 1981 launched a drive that paved the way for a significant expansion of scholarship support for students and endowed faculty positions. In early 1980, it also established the distinctive Nichols International Studies Program that supports the travel of students to sites around the globe.
In the 1990s President John V. Griffith led a strategic planning process that placed the College on the path to distinction as a national liberal arts institution. During Griffith's tenure, the College changed its curriculum, built or expanded several academic buildings including:
- Holloway Theatre (1991)
- Lyon Business and Economics Building (1993)
- President's Residence, Bradley Manor (1994)
- Upper Division Residence Hall, Young House (1993).
In 1994, it adopted the name Lyon College to honor a family that had served it with distinction for more than a half-century. After a renewal of the decades-old discussion of changing the name, on the grounds that "Arkansas College" was too commonplace to express its distinction, the venerable school become Lyon College.
It took major persuasion to convince the modest and private Frank Lyon to accept the judgment of the Board, the administration, the planners and the college family that the old Presbyterian school should bear the Lyon name. Frank Jr., himself uncomfortable with the spotlights on the Lyons, recalls that his father was angry with President John Griffith and board member Robert Young, and even with his son. "And I didn't have anything to do with it," Frank Jr. said with a laugh. Only the Lyon family was bothered by the choice of name, though. Donald Weatherman, a faculty member at the time, observed on the day of the public announcement that "if I were to list all of the qualities of a person after whom our liberal arts institution should be named, the only person would qualify to fit that list" was Frank Lyon, Sr. And so the day marked a new birth for the old college.
The College also created the state's only student-run Honor System in 1994 and began competition in the TranSouth Athletic Conference in 1997-98.
The College's growing regional and national reputation was exemplified by the regular recognition that came to its faculty. Since 1989, 14 members of the Lyon faculty have been recognized as Arkansas Professors of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Support and Advancement of Education.
Dr. Walter Roettger became president in 1998 and continued the transformation that had begun under his predecessor.
The curriculum continued to grow with the addition of majors in accounting, business administration and computer science and, more recently, biochemistry and elementary education. The 60,854-square-foot Derby Center for Science and Mathematics was completed in December 2003; the Kelley Baseball Complex opened in January 2004.
In 2001, the College was recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's "Best Liberal Arts Colleges."
Donald Weatherman became the college's 17th president on July 1, 2009. He continues to build upon the college's strengths as it prepares graduates for lives of personal growth, professional fulfillment and community service in the 21st century.
A fire in 2010, destroyed the student center and dining hall Edwards Commons. The building was rebuilt and opened to students in the fall of 2012. The rebuilt Edwards Commons features a bistro, dining hall, student life offices, The Scot Shop, student mailboxes, and a gameroom.
In 2013, Lyon College reinstated football after a 62-year hiatus. Six-foot-three, 266-pound tight end Garett Denton of Batesville became the first Lyon College football player since 1951 when he signed a letter of intent Aug. 20, 2013. Lyon also announced in 2013, that men's and women's wrestling would be added to the roster of sports.
"Lyon College, 1872-2002: The Perseverance and Promise of an Arkansas College" by Dr. Brooks Blevins
In 2002, Dr. Brooks Blevins, former Lyon College professor of history, authored the history of his alma mater. "Lyon College, 1872-2002: The Perseverance and Promise of an Arkansas College" was published in 2003 by the University of Arkansas Press.
Illustrated with wonderful photographs from every period in the school's history, this book also contains useful appendices: a timeline of key events and listings of all the presidents, deans, board chairs, and award winners.
Blevins' book is available at the Lyon College Bookstore.