A smiling perfectionist with a Southern drawl

The first time Eris Lytle saw the stones from St. Mary’s Church in London, England, they were a scrambled mess. In addition, they were an ugly black! Missouri’s winter weather took care of the black; it was coal dust from the ship’s hold and the stones were back to normal by spring. Lytle didn’t know it then, but he faced a challenge no man had ever faced before. He was chosen, by the late John Epple, to be in charge of erecting a London church at Fulton’s Westminster College.

"We don’t have any 300-year-old structures in this country," Lytle said, "and I became obsessed with the church’s long history and with Sir Christopher Wren’s designs." The challenge was even greater because every stone had to be placed in the exact row and numbered space in Fulton, as it had been in London. An additional problem was that the stones, carefully numbered when they were dismantled from the ruins after WWII, had been hopelessly scrambled during the packing and shipping. This 52-year-old man enthusiastically accepted the tremendous challenge and ... Well, drive over to Fulton and see for yourself!

Today is Eris Lytle’s 94th birthday. Friends are dropping in, by appointment, this week, to visit briefly and to hear him say again, "You start looking for a 4-inch stone that’s lost in a 700-ton load; it can be quite a job," The late John Epple put it this way, "Lytle was in charge of solving the most gigantic jigsaw puzzle with 7,000 pieces."

In 1975, the London Times called Lytle "a smiling perfectionist with a ‘Southern drawl.... One of the world’s leading authorities on mathematician/architect Sir Christopher Wren ... the man who now knows more about the practicalities of ancient stone masonry than any other American.’ " It’s no wonder I’m proud to relate his story; Eris is my brother-in-law.

One man constantly hunted numbered stones which were spread out on a two-acre lot. However, if one of the stone masons was ready for a stone marked No. 297, there were four of them: No. 297 south, No. 297 east, No. 297 north and No. 297 west. Many stones had to be repaired, and Lytle would cut off the damaged comers and add new ones with stone epoxy. He worked dawn to dusk, in order to keep the repaired stones ready for placement at the right time.

His late wife, Mid, said he’d come home covered with stone dust except for a circular spot where his face mask had been. Eris studied the plans far into the night and was on the job at daylight the next morning.

An annoying problem was that they had to work in reverse. When workmen in England dismantled the ruins they numbered stones from the top, of course. Number one stone on each side was on top. In Fulton, number one stones were on the top again, but they were the last ones to be laid! I once asked Eris, "Did you just lay a row of stones and cut off what stuck out at the end?" It was a dumb question and he grinned and said politely, "No, we carefully watched the width of our mortar joints."

Eris is a self-taught, gold-card-carrying brick mason who joined the local union in 1924. He couldn’t pay his dues during the depression so he dropped out of the union. In 1934, he was reinstated and is now a lifetime member. He’s helped build much of Central Missouri with a magic towel in his hand. On March 29, 1992, Eris was inducted into the Association of Churchill Fellows of Westminster College.

Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

If you’d like to recall a story with this genial 94-year-old friend, address it to him at 2600 Ridgefield, Columbia, Mo., 65205, or send it to my e-mail address here.

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