For many Americans, going two generations back takes them to World War II.
For Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., who died September 26, two generations stretched to a century earlier, when steam locomotives ruled the land and his grandfather was 10th president of the United States.
Tyler, 95, was the grandson of John Tyler, who served as president from 1841 to 1845.
He died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. A younger brother is among his survivors.
That someone in the 21st century could have a grandfather who knew Thomas Jefferson can be attributed to late-in-life paternity, second wives and longevity in his family: Three generations of Tyler men spanned an incredible 230 years.
While Tyler, a World War II veteran, lawyer and history professor at the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel, was proud of his ancestor and spoke about him, it was not what defined his life.
His daughter, Susan Selina Pope Tyler, said Thursday that her father was a humble and compassionate man of faith who mentored others.
“He was kind and loving to everyone, even the marginalized,” Susan Tyler wrote in remarks planned for a memorial service next week, which she shared with CNN.
“I’ve had many share with me how my father affected their lives, through his advice or his practical help.”
Tyler lived in Franklin, Tennessee, at the time of his passing. He grew up in Virginia. His younger brother, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, 91, is now the last surviving grandson of the president.
John Tyler was elected vice president in 1840, but he was thrust into the role of commander-in-chief when President William Henry Harrison died just one month into office. His detractors consequently called him “His Accidency.”
While most historians don’t place him high in the pantheon of presidents, Tyler’s family said he should be remembered for his honesty and integrity – even if it cost him politically.
President Tyler, who served one term, fathered 15 children. His first wife, Letitia, had eight children before dying in 1842, and second wife Julia had seven. John Tyler was 63 when son Lyon Gardiner Tyler Sr. was born.
Lyon Sr., who went on to become president of William & Mary, was 71 when Lyon Jr. was born to his second wife.
The younger Lyon was a lawyer before turning to an academic career.
While John Tyler was a slave owner, his great-granddaughter Susan Tyler said her father and late mother, Lucy Jane Pope Tyler, championed civil rights.
Lyon Tyler Jr. himself had a bit of humor about being related to a US president.
“I heard too much about presidents growing up,” he wrote in one speech he delivered. He related that when he was three or four, a woman asked, “Are you going to be President when you grow up?” He answered, ‘I’ll bite your head off.’” Then she asked, “And what will you do with the bones?” He told her, “I’ll spit ‘em out!”
Susan Tyler said her father took the family’s fame in stride.
“Dad used to be asked if he knew John Tyler. He would always reply, ‘I’m not that old’ and he would laugh. He had a great sense of humor.”