If Donald Lytle was telling this story, he’d start by leaning back in his chair and smiling – you know the one, that type of grin that never seemed to completely disappear from his face. The tale would probably take some unexpected twists and turns with some obvious embellishments and eyebrow-raising details. He’d then throw in a cheeky joke with a characteristic wink at the end.
Everyone who met him – whether they knew him as Farmer Don or Mr. Lytle or Pop Pop – knew one thing for certain: That man was a storyteller.
From racing down the curving farmhouse steps as a kid to performing in senior plays at Avon Grove High School to entertaining grandchildren on his rocking chair swing, he always knew how to bring people together.
That was especially true as he invited his neighbors to Lytle’s Farm many decades ago in one of the area’s first pick-your-own produce businesses. Even today, parents and grandparents bring their kids to pick pumpkins, and some still remember how Farmer Don would routinely call out, “Tail on the bale, feet on the floor,” over a rumbling tractor ride.
At 90 years old, Donald Lytle passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 4. And all these stories that Lytle spent his life stringing together are only part of why this New London man’s legacy will continue to shine bright in his local community and beyond.
‘Right time and place’
Not too long ago, Lytle told his grandchildren, “I was at the right time and place my whole life.”
And there was something in the way that he said it…you had to believe him.
He was at the right time and place when he joined his father delivering eggs throughout Wilmington, Delaware. And when his high school agriculture teacher recommended he try growing strawberries at 16 years old – a venture that later led to a lasting pick-your-own pumpkin business when a late frost threatened his strawberry crop.
Of course, he showed up at the right square dance where he’d meet his future bride Peggy, too.
It was timing and luck that brought him into the Air Force during the Korean War. He remembered a conversation with his young wife: If Eisenhower won the presidential election, he’d join the Air Force rather than the Army. That decision led the couple to Texas and – when Lytle joked that he got tired of the heat – Alaska.
Working as an air force carpenter at the base’s hobby shop, he learned to craft intricately designed leather purses and bags, as well as wooden coffee tables, ceramics and more. No doubt, his self-proclaimed “gift of gab,” and instant connection with people gave him a leg up there, too.
When he returned to the farm, starting his own egg routes in Newark and Wilmington, he ran into a customer who said her husband was in charge of hiring at the new Chrysler plant nearby. Did he want a job?
Again, he found himself right where he needed to be. As Lytle told it, he walked to the front of the line, told the hiring manager that the man’s wife promised him a job. Many years later, it was not just the job and the tales of hardworking union men, but the friendships and the stories they tossed back and forth that stuck with him.
A life that doesn’t fit into one story
The story of Donald Lytle is much more than dots on a map or dates on a calendar, though.
His family will tell you that he had a laugh that was unlike any other, big and hearty and infectious. He had a mischievous way about him that started in the small New London schoolhouse and continued into high school where his classmates named him most likely to be a school principal …because he spent so much time in that office.
He was proud that he could outwit just about anybody. Except maybe that one time in the Air Force. Knowing that the dreaded kitchen chore of cleaning pots and pans went to the last man to arrive at KP or “kitchen police” duty, Lytle devised a plan to stake out his spot in line overnight. When he fell asleep in the doorway, though, each of his buddies stepped over his sleeping body, and when he opened his eyes? You bet there was a grimy pile of pots and pans waiting to be scrubbed.
These were the kinds of stories that he loved to tell, accompanied by lots of laughter. He often told a joke at his own expense or a lesson-learned from a lost fingertip or other farm injury.
Whether Lytle was sharing stories around the living room, at the produce auction, on the farm or even at McDonald’s, it was how he connected with people. And these moments bought him palpable joy. It also gave him a unique friendship with so many people in the community.
Over time, he generated a sense of local celebrity, and his grandchildren puffed up with pride when they could say, “Yes, my grandfather is that Donald Lytle.”
He probably cherished those moments with his grandchildren, and later his great grandchildren, most of all. Together with Peggy, he showed his love in a familiar grandparent way, with shared meals and T-shirts brought back from trips, and in not so typical ways – have you ever heard about the birthday gift involving billy goats?
Donald and Peggy were partners on the dance floor, on the egg routes and for nearly 70 years of marriage – and Lytle stood by his wife and cared for her in the most difficult days near the end of her life.
While Mom Mom would always call to let you know how beautiful the moon looks one night, Pop Pop would call and make sure you were (or weren’t) watching the Phillies or Eagles games, depending if he believed your viewing would bring Philadelphia good luck.
And he’d daydream about the good ole days when Google didn’t take all the fun out of guessing the answers to silly questions.
Donald Lytle was one-of-a-kind. A man with a big heart who worked hard and loved his community and his family. He told countless stories over his 90 years, and he planted the seeds for many more stories yet to be told.