Honoree chose Ph.D. over MGM lion tour

The MGM lion changed Gifford Blyton’s life forever.

When Blyton went to college in Washington, he said he was offered the job of taking the famous movie studio’s lion on a national tour but turned it down.

That moment was a turning point. Instead of chauffeuring the lion, Blyton decided to continue his education, which eventually led to a 58-year career at UK.

Blyton, who will turn 100 in September, has been nominated to receive an honorary degree from UK this spring. He worked at UK from 1948 to 2006; he was a communications professor for 27 years, a debate coach for 21 and parliamentarian for the Faculty Senate for 35, among other things.

But he was born more than 2,000 miles from where he would spend much of his career — on a steamboat in Washington heading up the Snake River.

For the first years of his life, Blyton said he lived in poverty on the family’s fruit farm in Wawawai, Wash. His childhood playmates were the children of the company’s American Indian workers.

“The Indians were at the time separated from whites,” Blyton said. “Not me. I learned more from the Indians than I did any religious service.”

After Blyton’s parents divorced, which he said “tore me apart,” Blyton and his four sisters went with their mother to Idaho, where he was formally educated for the first time at 14. He was shocked by life off the fruit farm, and the other kids teased him because he had to speak loudly to his mother, who had trouble hearing.

“The kids called me ‘the loudmouthed kid from Wawawai,’ ” Blyton said. “They didn’t abuse me, but they didn’t show me a hell of a lot of respect.”

He graduated from high school and began college at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he began working for MGM. He quit the studio job, turning down the opportunity to work with the famous lion and go to Hollywood as actress Joan Crawford’s chauffer. If he had stayed, he said he never would have continued his education.

He began working as a steward on a yacht, where he met business magnate R.J. O’Brien. One day, O’Brien asked Blyton what he wanted to do with his life.

“I said, ‘I’d like to get a Ph.D.’ He said, ‘What’s the hold-up?’ ” Blyton said.

Once he heard Blyton didn’t have the money, O’Brien said he would loan it to him if he went to Louisiana State University. Blyton packed up and moved south.

At one of the first dinners he attended in Louisiana, Blyton sat next to the woman who would become his wife, Marion Geren. He and Marion Blyton, now 97, have been married almost 70 years.

“You can blame R.J. O’Brien for that,” Blyton said. “Or give him credit, whichever way you want to go.”

Blyton transferred to Ohio State University, where he got his doctorate in 1941, and he began teaching at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. In 1948, he was offered a job at UK, where he would spend the rest of his career.

Blyton taught communications for 27 years. He also coached the debate team; in that position, he said he taught more than 175 students and won about 700 trophies. In a scrapbook with the words “University of Kentucky Debate” written on the front, Blyton has collected hundreds of yellowed newspaper clips on the team’s victories in his 21 years as a coach.

Although Blyton founded the UK Association of Emeriti Faculty and won a UK Great Teacher Award in 1970, he said the thing he is most proud of is the difference he has made in other people’s lives.

“The fact that I have impacted, for good or for evil, about five to 10 thousand students, I think that’s an achievement,” he said.

For more than 35 years, Blyton served as the Faculty Senate parliamentarian, interpreting Senate rules during meetings. He quit in 2006 when he blacked out in the grocery store and woke up in a hospital room. Doctors have not figured out what caused the blackout, he said.

Blyton said he knows he will probably die soon, and although he doesn’t believe in heaven, Blyton said he is ready for death.

“I think, and this is ego of course, that I made an impact on people,” he said. “… At least I’m going to leave something. Somebody out there knows me.”