This is the Detroit/WWJ section of
The Broadcast Archive
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 3/8/03
Jeffrey McQueen shares the story of a great radio station and
WWJ, A Jesuit and the Bomb
Revised January 2003
August of 1995, two significant events in world history celebrated an
anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the Bomb on Japan and 75th
anniversary of WWJ (the first commercial radio station). While these events may
appear to be unrelated, documents have recently surfaced which connect my
great-uncle, Father Michael DeLisle Lyons, to both events.
When my research began, many family myths about this radio pioneer were
confirmed, but another story emerged. It's a complex story of a young
electronics genius that became a Jesuit priest stationed in India, before the
country achieved its independence from the British. He fell in love with a nun
and had two daughters. He secretly became the supplier of beryllium for the
initiators of the first atomic weapons, and he finally died in obscurity from
Chronic Beryllium Lung Disease. His whole story might make a good book or movie,
though its truth is so strange it probably would not be believed were it not for
the documents and photos left behind.
This story begins with the early years of radio and the pioneers, many of whom
were young teenagers, like Michael DeLisle Lyons.
By 1919, several amateur radio clubs had formed in the Detroit area. The most
significant of which was called the Detroit
Amateur Radio Association or D.A.R.A. It was most likely from this club that
the Scripps family of The Detroit News noticed Mike. Perhaps, it was the
publication of The Detroit
Radio News, in January of 1919, which first caught their attention. Mike was
At the same time, throughout the world the owners of newspapers were concerned
with this new developing technology of wireless communication. Newspapers feared
that if radio became popular nobody would buy a newspaper, and they would be out
of business. At The Detroit
News many were also concerned that if people heard that they were going to
financially back the development of a radio station, they would become the
object of ridicule. Their involvement in developing their station began without
publicity. In fact, many of the first commercial radio stations were built and
financed by newspapers.
Word had gotten out about the radio transmitter, and antenna installed by Mike
and Frank at their parents' house, which was located at 463 Green Avenue in
Delray. The amateur radio, 8AM, could transmit further than most of the other
amateur radios in Detroit due to the height of its antenna, which stood towering
in the backyard, and let off what many of they neighbors felt was an irritating
buzzing sound. Frank was proud of this station, since it was the first licensed
The Detroit News paid Mike
to supervise and assist in the installation of 8MK in the second floor of their
building, located at the corner of Lafayette and 2nd Avenue in Detroit. The Consolidated
Radio Call Book from May 1922 indicates on page 229: “8MK . . . Radio News
and Music, Inc. (M. D. Lyons), Lafayette and 2nd Aves., Detroit, Mich.” The
owners of The Detroit News
even asked him to have 8MK licensed in his name with his address at 463 Green
Avenue. This was done to keep some distance between the radio station and the
newspaper. However, Mike became angry when he heard that they had hired someone
else to install the antenna. This antenna proved to be faulty, and Mike had to
rush to repair and redesign the antenna before the first scheduled broadcast.
For this repair work Mike was owed an additional $500, which was quite a sum.
Yet, Mike was never paid for this work. He became bitter, and cut his ties with The
Detroit News. Mike also had a hard time getting the $25 per month salary he
was owed as a supervisor until the patent battle between DeForest and Marconi
had been settled around 1932. The fact is, this station could no longer be
considered an amateur operation, since people were being hired and paid to
set-up and run its broadcasts, which were to officially begin on the 20th of
August, 1920. Before its first broadcast 8MK's license was transferred to The
Detroit News, and later on March 3, 1922 the call letters would be changed
to WWJ, possibly named after W. J. Scripps.
Since that fateful date, several have challenged WWJ’s claim as the first
commercial radio station, foremost is KDKA of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which
began broadcasting on November 2, 1920 (nearly 11 weeks after WWJ. KDKA did
receive the first commercial license from the government on October 27, 1920
nearly a year before WWJ received their license from the government. However,
the father of radio, famed inventor Lee DeForest, appears to have settled the
dispute in 1936 when he said: "On the night of August 20, 1920, the first
commercial radio station in all the world was opened. And every night and every
day since that momentous beginning WWJ has maintained this service."
Evidence appears to point to the fact that 8MK, now called WWJ, can now
rightfully claim that they were the first commercial radio station in the world,
and not an amateur operation as KDKA has claimed. Mike and others were paid to
install and run the station, and should share in the honor of developing the
world's first commercial station. This was not a hobby for the young men
involved in 8MK's development. Their interests took them to further adventures
in early radio.
In August of 1921, Mike, Mike's brother Frank and their friend Ed Clark (who
started WJR) convinced the police in Toledo, Ohio to allow them to install a
radio in one of their cars. They wanted to show them how radio could help them
catch criminals faster. Mike and Ed sat in the back seat of a patrol car with a
transmitter/receiver stretched across the whole back seat. Frank operated a
transmitter/receiver in the police station. Soon after the car was on patrol a
call came from the station, informing the car's occupants of the address where a
breaking and entering was taking place. The patrol car sped to the scene and
quickly apprehended the perpetrator. This was the first time a radio had been
installed in a police car. News of the event reached several papers throughout
the United States and RCA quickly received a contract to install radios in many
of this nation's patrol cars.
On August 6, 1922 Mike left Detroit and entered the Society of Jesus or The
Jesuits. Mike entered St. Stanislaus Jesuit Seminary in Florissant, Missouri as
On August 16, 1924 Mike was enrolled by the Jesuits into St. Louis University's
School of Philosophy and Science. Following the Jesuit tradition, he was well
educated with an especially strong background in languages and sciences. It was
during Mike's final academic year (1926-1927), that many events would coincide
to shape his future. In that year Mike wrote and article in the January-February
1927 Physics Bulletin entitled: Plan
to Utilize Radio to Hasten the Conversion of Asia. Mike's article had
received notice at many levels throughout the Jesuits and the Catholic Church
hierarchy. Mike proposed setting up radio stations in three locations in India,
two in China, one in Japan and one in the Philippines at a cost not to exceed
$25,000 per station. His idea was to utilize these stations to broadcast their
messages to the masses, and even into the palaces of the maharajahs in the hopes
of speedier conversion into the Catholic faith.
It would not surprise anyone to know that Mike would eventually become a friend
of Father Coughlin of Detroit, "The Radio Priest" and helped him build
In his final year at St. Louis University, Mike also studied Geology under
Father James Bernard Macelwane, who established the Seismological Society of
America. The Atomic Energy Program would later grant Father Macelwane
“Q-level” security clearance in 1948. Q-level security clearance was
developed by the government to limit the number of people with access to nuclear
facilities. It is believed that Father Macelwane assisted in guiding the U.S.
Government in locating strategic minerals, and quite possibly in choosing sites
for below ground weapons development and missile silos. Mike had also acquired
Q-level security clearance.
During his final year at St. Louis University, Mike also received notice that he
had been chosen for the missions of northern India. Mike graduated university by
finishing his final courses at Sacred Heart College at Shembaganur in the Madura
District of India.
On November 21, 1933 Mike was ordained at St. Mary's College in the foothills of
the Himalaya Mountains. It was here that Mike heard the words that every young
Jesuit scholastic yearns to hear: “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum,” or "You
are a priest for eternity."
From 1927 to 1941 Mike served as a Jesuit missionary in Allahabad, Bettiah,
Chuhari, Bhagalpur and Kurseong only leaving once in 1931 to study Theology in
Belgium for a short time. Mike served as a missionary under Bishop Bernard J.
Sullivan, S.J.D.D., who was the Bishop of Patna, India from 1929 to 1946. Mike's
ability to speak several different dialects of the native languages became well
known. Yet, the majority of Mike's work focused on the missionary work with the
poorest castes of India.
Through his work Mike eventually became assigned to a mission where he met again
a beautiful young Anglo-Indian woman, who served as a Nun of the Sacred Heart
caring for the sick and orphaned. Her name was Agnes Julius Shah. Mike
remembered meeting Agnes when he first arrived in India. She was only
15-years-old then. She was now 26-years-old, 12 years younger than Mike. Soon
Mike could think of nobody else, and secretly in his prayers he asked for
another mission to take him away from the temptation he was feeling. His prayers
were soon answered when he was reassigned to a small nearby village in Gaya.
In Gaya, Mike spent much of his time with the converted depressed classes, or
lower castes. Later, Mike began to have problems with malaria, and Bishop
Sullivan decided that Mike would need the care of a live-in nun with training in
nursing, if he were to carry out his missionary work. Yet, having a woman live
in a house with a priest, even if she was a nun, would not have looked proper.
The Bishop decided to send two “hospital sisters.” As fate would have it,
one of the sisters was Agnes Shah. They fell in love, and soon Agnes was with
By July of 1940 the Father Provincial would begin to hear that Mike was involved
with Agnes, but no action would be taken until it was confirmed. Soon thereafter
Mike left the priesthood. On November 27, 1940 the first daughter was born to
Agnes and Mike. Her name is Esther Mary Lyons. The new parents were very
excited, but in the eyes of the church Mike had taken "flight with a
woman." Knowing that he would soon be asked to resign from the Jesuits,
Mike began to seek work as a journalist in Delhi. Eventually, Mike moved his new
family to Calcutta, where he continued his work as a priest with the poor and
wrote articles on India.
1941, Mike officially resigned from The Society of Jesus. That year Mike also
met the "great soul" Mohandas K. Gandhi or as most refer to him today
"Mahatma Gandhi." In a letter dated December 28th, 1941 Mike wrote:
"I saw Mahatma Gandhi to ask him his ideas on uplift work . . . I may say I
asked him point blank if he had any hopes for the removal of poverty from India,
and the old man, lying on a carpet on the bare ground, smiling replied that he
"Well," he replied, "It is like this," and he proceeded to
tell me that a fire spreads and that the true solution in one place will spread
all over, and I had to seek the true solution in one place. I replied at once
that I hoped to find that fire of true reform burning in his village, to which
the old man laughingly replied, "I can't say you'll find it here."
Gandhi proceeded to state that the true solution required the spirit of
sacrifice, which he was trying to give the people."
In the next few years, a friendship would develop between Mike and Gandhi. On
the 10th of December, 1941 Mike met Jawaharlal Nehru, who was living in a
beautiful home in a fine compound called “Ananad Bhawan,” or "Abode of
Happiness," in Allahabad.
In March of 1942, church authorities reassigned Mike to St. Xavier's Mission of
Robertsganj in Mirzapur, Upper Pradesh (just west of Patna). From there Mike
moved to Meerut, India in 1943 and began increased contact with many American
soldiers, who were stationed in India. It was through these acquaintances that
Mike finally came into the service of the Federal Economic Administration (FEA)
in 1944. In addition, on February 23, 1944 Agnes gave birth to their second
daughter, Violet Rita.
Meanwhile, Mike was employed by the FEA to locate strategic minerals in India,
especially beryllium, a key element required for the detonation of a nuclear
bomb. In a letter dated January 2, 1945 and marked "confidential," a
Mr. H. W. Witt, Procurement Officer of the FEA wrote the following to Mr. Arthur
Z. Gardiner, of the Foreign Procurement and Development Branch in Washington,
"Lyons is particularly well fitted for this type of work. He is an
indefatigable worker with rarely found knowledge of India and her peoples. He
has been 17 years in the villages, knows many of the native languages and
obtains information that I doubt could be obtained by anyone else in India,
including the British. Lyons spent some time in Bihar. He reported on
occurrences of beryl and other minerals.... At present Lyons is in South India.
His reports to date on this area comprise about 100 pages. They cover a wide
range of interests, including general geological information, mineral
occurrences (not limited to beryl and tantalite)...."
letter was copied to Messrs. Babb, Hummer, Macy and Dr. Hulin all of the
Family members tell me that Father Mike was in the United States briefly in
1945, to participate in the first A-bomb test at the Trinity site in Los Alamos,
New Mexico. Agents from the Federal
Bureau of Investigations accompanied Mike on his visit to Detroit and New
Mexico, and interviewed several neighbors in Detroit to ensure his security.
However in 1947, Mike was officially brought back to the United States by our
Mike’s daughter Esther, we have now learned Mike received council from church
authorities, who encouraged him to return to the priesthood. Mike decided to
return to life as a priest when he returned to the United States in 1947. Mike
also planned to continue his work for India and his work with the U.S.
government. Upon return, Mike lost contact with Sister Agnes and his daughters.
Attempts to contact Sister Agnes through church authorities and missionaries
were unsuccessful. Missionaries, who served with Father Mike were under orders
not to communicate with Father Mike once he returned to the U.S.
From 1946 to 1947, Mike published several articles on India, as India gained its
independence from British rule. These articles appeared in the December 22, 1946
issue of The New
York Times, and the January and February 1947 issues of Columbia
In 1946, Bishop Sullivan returned home to Denver, Colorado and St. Regis
University. Mike later followed to Arvada, Colorado, which was about 15 minutes
from St. Regis University and Boulder. From a piece of property on a hill facing
the mountains and Boulder to the west, Mike began The
Radio Communication Company and The
Beryl Ores Company. The
Radio Communication Company was set up to provide people, who lived over the
first ridge of mountains west of Boulder with a means of contacting the sheriff
or friends, since telephone lines could not be installed. This was the business
that most of the people in the area knew Mike owned and ran. Eventually, the
townspeople of Arvada made him the President of the Chamber of Commerce.
However, they never knew he was a priest until they attended his funeral in
The Beryl Ores Company was
set up to supply the U.S. Government with beryllium for the triggering
mechanisms of nuclear weapons. A few men worked grinding the beryl crystals into
a power, which was later heated and treated with chemicals to extract the
beryllium. This beryllium was often delivered by walking it over to the Rocky
Flats Plant, which made the triggers for nuclear weapons. The Rocky Flats Plant
is about 200 yards from the property and house where Mike lived and worked. More
recently, the Rocky Flats Plant made the W-88 warhead for the Trident II
In 1970, Mike began having difficulties breathing and was put on oxygen, but he
couldn't understand why, since he never smoked. Mike had also been brought back
into the priesthood officially. He was also allowed by the local Bishop to
travel to North and South Dakota, and other neighboring states and serve
communion as a priest. As 1974 approached Mike knew he was dying. He contacted
the local bishop and asked if he could be buried with the Jesuits, near Bishop
Sullivan (who died in 1970) at Mount Olivet Cemetery. The bishop refused.
However, Mike managed to buy a plot just outside the area owned by the Jesuits,
which would position him at the foot of Bishop Sullivan.
Father Michael D. Lyons died August 17, 1974. The certificate of death indicates
that he died of "acute respiratory failure." A publication provided to
the public by the Rocky Flats Plant states: beryllium dust is toxic and can
cause a lung disease called "chronic beryllium disease (similar to
asbestosis). . ."
before President Clinton left office in 2000, he signed a bill, which would
award $150,000 to a spouse or family who had a loved-one become seriously ill or
die due to beryllium exposure from working in the US nuclear industry. Shortly
after news of this new bill hitting the media, Jeff McQueen filed a claim on
behalf of Esther and Violet.
December 24, 2002, the U.S. Department of Labor sent a letter to Esther Lyons
and her sister Violet stating:
. . . the undersigned (Anthony Zona, Hearing Representative) hereby finds that
Esther M. Lyons and Violet Lyons Gardner are entitled to the awards of $75,000,
each, as provided by 42 U.S.C. 7384s(a)(1) and (e)(1)(A).
with the letter was a “History and Physical Examination” dated March 20,
1973 which stated:
Lyons is a seventy two year old white male with a diagnosis of pulmonary
fibrosis secondary to berylliosis admitted with a chief complaint of increasing
dyspnea and substernal chest tightness . . . The patient (Michael
DeLisle Lyons) is a owner of a beryllium plant and has been exposed to beryllium
since 1946 with heavy exposure to the oxide of the metal ten years prior to
you are curious about Mike's middle name, it's "DeLisle." You see his
mother's side of the family descended from the French voyagers who came with
Cadillac in 1701 to found Detroit. In fact, Mike was a descendant of Francois
Bienvenu "dit" DeLisle, who served as Cadillac's lieutenant, and who
was also Detroit's first tavern keeper. Many other familiar old French family
names can be found in Mike's heritage, such as St. Aubin, Livernois, Riopelle
and Campau (Campeau). Mike was truly a native son of Detroit.
Meanwhile, for the family, there has been good news. Since 1993, Mike's family
in the U.S. has been in touch with their new cousins. Mike's daughter Esther now
lives in Australia and has written a book about her life, entitled: Bitter
Sweet Truth. Violet lives in Dehra Dun, India and owns a school. Currently,
I am continuing my research efforts in Father Mike's life in the hope of one day
publishing his biography, which I intend to title: Sacerdos.
Rochester Hills, Michigan
you are interested in this story, or have more info to add, please contact me.
McQueen can be contacted at McQueen327@aol.com