Sept. 24, 2007 -- In a late-afternoon ceremony held Sept. 21 at Carr's Hill, John D. Lyons, chairman of the University of Virginia's Department of French Language and Literature, received France's highest honor. Michel Schaffhauser, Consul Général de France in the embassy in Washington, presented Lyons the five-tipped star pin, a symbol of the Legion of Honor, in front of a crowd of friends and colleagues. The award signifies Lyons' membership in the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.
Lyons, Commonwealth Professor of French, was honored for his scholarship in 17th -century French literature and culture and for encouraging students to study French, said Schaffhauser, who presented his remarks in French. Lyons accepted the award with three kisses on the cheek, a French cultural gesture of special respect and friendship.
Lyons chairs one of the most active French departments in the United States, awarding more than 55 undergraduate degrees each year. In the past few years, Lyons has worked closely with the French Embassy on programs that encourage exchanges of students between France and the U.S. . Each year, between 10 and 16 U.Va. graduates spend a year in France teaching English as part of a French Ministry of Education program run by the embassy in Washington. Lyons has also served several years on an embassy jury panel that selects recipients of Chateaubriand Fellowships, which allow doctoral students from American universities to complete their dissertations in France.
Lyons joins a notable group with University of Virginia ties to be inducted into the Legion of Honor. In 1995, U.Va. emeritus professor Douglas (Bill) W. Alden was honored for his French scholarship and his work with the French Resistance in World War II. U.Va. President Edwin A. Alderman and Paul Goodloe McIntire, a businessman and philanthropist, whose generosity and name are intricately linked to the University and Charlottesville, were honored at a ceremony in 1929. Alderman was recognized for the contributions of the University and its faculty, students and alumni who aided France during World War I. McIntire was honored for a children's tuberculosis hospital he founded in France for refugees from the German-occupied north.
Lyons learned he was to receive the honor in a humorous way. Going through his mail one day he noticed an envelope from the embassy, and — assuming it was correspondence notifying him of a lecture series he probably would not be able to attend — was about to toss it in the trash unopened when the phone rang. It was Robby Judes, former deputy cultural counselor at the French Embassy with whom he had worked on numerous initiatives. Judes was calling to congratulate him on the decoration.
Lyons had no idea what Judes was talking about. "It took me completely by surprise," Lyons he said.
Lyons "deserves the 'légion d'honneur' because, thanks to him, more and more students now love [the] French language," wrote Judes in an e-mail from France.
"He worked hard with us at the French Embassy to allow young Americans to go and study in France. He participated to in several Chateaubriand jurieys, and I noticed his remarkable skill and intelligence. His knowledge of French culture is amazing. Otherwise, Professor Lyons is an 'honest man,' as Montaigne could say about him."
"For me the significance of this [honor] is that it marks the successes of the department," Lyons said. "I am happy to be the occasion of celebrating our excellent communications with the French Embassy.
"I believe this award will be a way of showing the world that this is a very dynamic and lively department."
Said Mary McKinley, a longtime colleague and recently director of undergraduate studies in the French department, "As department chair he has energetically encouraged and supported his colleagues in their research and teaching. He has worked to bring international scholars into the department, while at the same time strengthening links with our colleagues in Virginia's high schools. His involvement with the Center for Liberal Arts and their its seminars for high school teachers have all stressed innovative ways to kindle student excitement about French literature in middle and secondary schools."
In the classroom, Lyons forgoes the lecture format and approaches the subject matter by engaging the students in conversation. As a result they "have a chance to speak French. The students immediately get in to it," Lyons said.
"The students here add so much. The level of engagement, ability and seriousness make them ideal learners."
Lyons' interactive approach also has had direct impact on his scholarship. His upcoming book, "Chance and Tragedy," developed as a result of students' questions in a tragedy course he taught.
Other books by Lyons include "The Theatre of Disguise: Studies in French Baroque Drama," "The Listening Voice. An Essay on the Rhetoric of Saint Amant," "Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy," "The Tragedy of Origins: Pierre Corneille and Historical Perspective," "Kingdom of Disorder: The Theory of Tragedy in Seventeenth-Century France" and "Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau," as well as more than 70 articles.
Lyons received his bachelor's degree from Brown University and his master's and doctoral degrees from Yale University. He taught at Yale and Dartmouth before coming to U.Va. in 1987, where he has been the Commonwealth Professor of French since 1992. In spring 2005 he was a visiting professor at the Université de Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle.