Lyle Gillette: Retired Montana teacher stood for kids, now needs help himself

Lyle Gillette, in the purple cap at left, briefs people inside Old Montana Prison before beginning a tour in 2009. He led tours inside the prison, now a museum, for years.

Lyle Gillette, in the purple cap at left, briefs people inside Old Montana Prison before beginning a tour in 2009. He led tours inside the prison, now a museum, for years. Many of the people attending this particular tour were participants (or their relatives) in the 1959 prison riot. The Montana National guard ended it after three days. (Photo by Kevin S. Giles)

(Sad update: Lyle Gillette died Aug. 21, 2015 after, his son reported, five days of terrible pain.)

By Kevin S. Giles

The first time I met Lyle Gillette we were a rowdy bunch, some of us more than others, as he took charge of our eighth-grade gym class.

We wore red gym trunks that we stored with our tennis shoes and jock straps in wire baskets in the basement below the basketball floor. Every so often, when the air in the locker room ripened, Lyle would get after us for neglecting the washing machine.

Lyle Gillette

Lyle Gillette

Many years later, Lyle and I sat together when I returned to my hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana, for the 50-year commemoration of the 1959 prison riot. First complimenting me for my life’s accomplishments, he then got right to the early days: “I remember you as a skinny kid with those red shorts hanging to your knees,” he told me. We had a laugh about that. Boys become men, and men grow old, and long-ago memories feed good conversations.

I spoke with Lyle again when I heard he had liver cancer. I called him on a morning when his voice sounded impossibly weak. He’s been sick since January and was looking forward to his first visit with an oncologist.

We talked about his teaching career, his community service as mayor of Deer Lodge, being a tour guide for Old Montana Prison, and his devotion to generations of schoolkids. Lyle’s also been the longtime sports writer for the local weekly newspaper, the Silver State Post.

In a July 2000 interview in the Montana Standard, the daily newspaper in Butte, sports editor Hudson Willse disclosed that Lyle served as an assistant coach in almost every sport over the years and was a Montana Officials Association-certified basketball referee for 17 seasons. Willse also wrote at length about Lyle’s devotion to community events. “I lied to him, he lied to me,” Lyle joked about that interview when we spoke recently on the phone.

“He’s just a class act,” Al Cutler, who was the head football coach at Powell County High School when quoted in Willse’s story. “Lyle keeps things in perspective. Kids come first, and he has no ego.”

After serving in the Marines, including a tour to post-war Korea, Lyle appeared briefly in Deer Lodge to take a job at Montana State Prison as a guard. Eight days later, on April 16, 1959, a riot occurred. After I published Jerry’s Riot he wrote me about his prison experience. He applauded my book, and his encouragement is the kind of positive reinforcement everyone who knows Lyle has come to appreciate:

“Finished reading your work on the 1959 riot for the second time. You did a fantastic job! There are some situations that I remember; however, a great part of the riot was unknown to me. Men that I remember mostly were Lieutenants [Pete] Lynch and Fred Pruitt, the old red-headed Alabama native. I enjoyed visiting with him as my Mother was also from Alabama. After the riot I spend a good number of days ‘turning key’ at the west grill door leading into inside administration, also a short day or two working the library/print shop, and in the kitchen. I know firsthand what [guard and riot hostage] Vic Baldwin referred to as ‘dumb as a green pea.’ Anyway, Kevin, thanks for your work … a great job! I give a lot of tours during the summer and Jerry’s Riot has made my tours more factual.”

Lyle left Deer Lodge soon after the riot to take teaching jobs in Rudyard and Baker, two small towns in Montana. It was in 1965, the summer before we began those eighth-grade gym classes, when Lyle and his family moved to Deer Lodge. He was a physical education instructor for three years, then taught English at E.F. DuVall Junior High School the next 21 years before retiring in 1989. He’s remained a community mainstay ever since.

Read the Montana Standard profile of Lyle here: