It is a fortuitous coincidence that friendship is Chautauqua Institution’s Week One theme, Week Two’s focus is on games, and Chautauqua’s genuinely friendly, ever-welcoming, fun and funny Sports Club director will serve as the kick-off speaker for the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 2023 season.
At 9:15 a.m. Tuesday at the CWC House, Debra Marks Lyons will share her knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, a wide variety of intergenerational play in her talk, “Sports, Recreation, and Games at Chautauqua, and Why You Should Join the Fun.” At the end of her talk, audience members will play a Chautauqua sports trivia game that Lyons herself created.
“This is going to be a very interactive chat,” Lyons said. “I’ll explore the recreational opportunities available at Chautauqua and the benefits of play. … It’s not just for kids; it’s for adults, too.”
Originally from Bemus Point, New York, Lyons said she spent her first summer at Chautauqua with her parents and her sister, Diana, when she was 3 years old. Her father, Dick Marks, began his memorable 39-year tenure as the financial manager for Boys’ and Girls’ Club that season.
At Miami University of Ohio, Lyons majored in mass communications and completed an accelerated program, through which she also earned a master’s degree in speech communication in five years.
Initially, she worked for a few years in Chicago during the mid-1980s as the editor of KeyCom’s leisure desk. Lyons said that KeyCom, whose parent company was Sintel, was a forerunner to the internet. It sold computer terminals designed to be used exclusively for a Chicago-area electronic newspaper service that Hewlett Packard had created.
“That eventually folded,” Lyons said. “It was too early and not global enough; (its focus on Chicago) was too thin.” Nevertheless, for her, working at KeyCom was “exciting, as it was so new and the technology was at the cutting edge.”
Afterwards, for a couple of years, Lyons worked in marketing and communications for Data Base Management System, aka DBMS. When it folded, she went to Tellabs, a manufacturer of network communications equipment for corporations that started with echo suppressors and echo cancellers for phones and expanded by adding other product lines. Hired as the company’s trade show coordinator, she successfully transitioned to marketing.
At Gateway Communication in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she moved with her husband, Dana, a chemical engineer — who had “passed the Chautauqua test by falling in love with Chautauqua” — Lyons switched from equipment manufacturing to sales. As a mother of two young girls, she opted for some freelancing work in corporate communications.
After moving again, this time to The Woodlands in the Houston area, “Dana switched careers and followed his dream,” Lyons said. “There was an opportunity to try something new. His hobby was triathlons, and doors kept opening, so he started Finish Strong Coaching.”
A highly competitive endurance athlete who has raced in “duathlons, triathlons, and running races at the local, national, and world championship level” for more than 45 years, Dana Lyons became a certified USA Triathlon Level II coach.
According to its website, since 2004, FSC “has coached hundreds of triathletes, duathletes and runners of all ages and abilities.”
Eventually, Lyons became FSC’s operations manager, responsible for most non-coaching tasks, including business administration and marketing.
“It started small and grew,” she said. “We bought a youth triathlon business … called SelecTRI (Youth and Junior Organization), in The Woodlands. So we were pretty big. Before COVID in 2020, we sold off that part of the business to one of (Dana’s) coaches. It’s a happy thing. Dana was ready to focus more on adults and one-on-one coaching.”
Downsizing their multisport coaching business has given Lyons the flexibility to take on a “side job” of selling women’s athletic clothes for Athleta.
Experience in sales and sports management and familiarity with Chautauqua enabled Lyons to quickly and competently take on the myriad challenges of serving as the director of Sports Club in 2017. Not only has she continued offering the activities that Sports Club has long been known for — such as shuffleboard, lawn bowling, bridge, and Mah Jongg — but she has also been introducing new recreational and leisure options for Chautauquans of all ages.
These activities include pontoon boat rentals (there will be three boats this season), sunrise paddling, historic and eco kayak tours, stand up paddleboarding (SUP), an annual Color Sprint initiated during Lyon’s first season as director, lawn bowling lessons, and sports lectures.
Initially, Dana Lyons focused on his role as Old First Night Run/Walk coordinator. This season, the OFN Run/Walk is set for Saturday, July 29.
In recent years, Dana Lyons has also taken on an expanding list of lake and land-related improvement projects, including preparing Sharpe Field for softball games, and as of last season, initiating a slow-pitch four-inning exhibition game with Jamestown’s Tarp Skunks, this year scheduled for July 11.
New offerings turned Sports Club into a profitable venture during Lyon’s very first season as director, especially when she “started the Color Run for fun,” and they have continued to enhance its revenue in the years since. According to the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Chautauqua Magazine, last year was a record-breaker.
Two college-aged employees are rounding out the Sports Club staff this season.
“We’re lean and mean,” Lyons said. “I’m really proud of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. We’ve been able to do new things successfully.”
Neither Lyons — Deb or Dana — is treading water. Ideas about what more can be done to enhance the enjoyment of sports-related activities at Chautauqua continue to percolate.
“The latest thing I really, really want to do is to (provide) an accessibility dock,” Lyons said. “We’ve written a business plan and are looking for grants or a donor. (In Chautauqua County) there’s one on Cassadaga Lake, on the Chadakoin (River) in Jamestown, and on Findley Lake.”
Although many older Chautauquans want to kayak and canoe, “it’s difficult for us to get people in and out (of a boat) safely,” Lyons said. “It can be a little treacherous. … An accessibility dock would be beneficial to people with mobility issues,” whether they use a wheelchair or not.
“We’re all about fun at the Sports Club,” she continued. “Yes, we’re all learning (at Chautauqua), but we can have fun doing it. … It’s a great elixir. You feel younger, healthier and more social. Embrace recreational activities. Find something you love, do it, and have fun doing it. You never know who you’ll meet.”
According to Lyons, she will enter each Chautauquan who stays until the end of her interactive talk and sports trivia game in a drawing for the board game Chautauqua-Opoly. “And one lucky person will win.”