A Life: John V. Bryar, 1921 — 2013; ‘He Was Looking Out for West Lebanon’
John Bryar and his late wife Gloria hold one of their grandchildren in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)
John Bryar Sr. in the mid-1940s, when he served on the USS Columbia in World War II. (Family photograph)
West Lebanon — In 2010, Lebanon city officials took a step that was both entirely fitting and completely unnecessary: They named the baseball field in the park off Seminary Hill for John Bryar.
As if anyone who knew anything in the city didn’t fully appreciate the role Bryar played in creating the Civic Memorial Field, maintaining the field and ensuring that the field received necessary attention and maintenance from volunteers and city officials.
A West Lebanon native who was fiercely proud of the community, Bryar led the acquisition effort and construction of the 12-acre field, which was adjacent to Seminary Hill School and directly across the street from his Crawford Avenue home. And when it opened, Bryar became its self-appointed guardian, always eager to peer in on games that were occurring, and hectoring volunteers and workers to make sure the field was properly maintained.
“He was like the steward of Seminary Hill,” said longtime Lebanon resident Jim Vanier. “It was like having seven-day, 24-hour a week surveillance for that facility. If you were up there at 3 a.m. to do something mischievous, he’d hear you. He’s always materialize, like (in) the Field of Dreams.”
For those who knew Bryar, who died on Jan. 18 at the age of 91, the field was the most visible manifestation of his two favorite causes — recreation and West Lebanon.
Bryar grew up in the Great Depression, the youngest of three children. Often, he got meals from neighbors. It was likely, his son believes, the beginning of his passion for serving his community.
“He always said that he was raised as much by his neighbors as anybody else, and he felt that he needed to pay that debt back,” Jack Bryar, of Grafton, Vt., said of his father. “It was a real important part of his identity.”
Bryar was an accomplished athlete at West Lebanon High School, excelling at football, basketball and ski jumping, and dreamt of perhaps one day making a living playing football.
But any chance of that was ruined in World War II, where he was sent after graduating in 1941. Bryar served on the USS Columbia, a lightweight ship that was part of the so-called “tin can” Navy, and saw action in Guadalcanal, the Battle of Empress and other conflicts in the South Pacific. He was wounded three times: During one kamikaze attack, Bryar and other men went to fix electronics that had been damaged when a second plane slammed into the carrier. Bryar was thrown into a net of live wires, badly burning his hand.
Bryar did well in high school and had thought of attending college, his son said, but after the war, his mother fell ill, and Bryar moved home to care for her, and spent his money from the GI Bill to pay for her medical needs.
Bryar spent most of his adult life working in public relations at the Goodyear plant in Windsor. But Bryar was one of those rare people for whom his job wasn’t a big part of his identity.
“My dad’s life wasn’t focused on his job, it was focused on his community,” Jack Bryar said. “The job was there to put food on the table and to allow him to do other things.”
Many of his early activities benefitted children: He helped to sponsor dances and hung Christmas lights around West Lebanon, said longtime West Lebanon resident Peter Edson, whose father was friends with Bryar.
“He was very helpful to us young people,” Edson said. “Mr. Bryar was a damn good man. He was looking out for West Lebanon. We were a close knit village, thanks in part to John Bryar.”
For members of Bryar’s and Edson’s generation, the distinction between West Lebanon and Lebanon was deeply felt: Some, including Bryar, preferred breaking away from the city and creating an independent community. To this day, alumni from the West Lebanon High School, which closed in the early 1960s, gather for an annual parade, days before Lebanon High School’s annual alumni celebration.
“It was quite prevalent among all older citizens who had lived here for generations: (They) did not want to be part of Lebanon,” said longtime West Lebanon resident Teri Dudley , who once bought a home from Bryar. “They wanted their own little community. They knew they were going to lose their high school, and they didn’t like it.”
Nonetheless, Bryar threw himself into service of Lebanon: He served on the City Council, the Planning Board, the West Lebanon Civic Association, the West Lebanon Congregational Church’s Junior Fellowship Program, and, for 50 years, the Lebanon Recreation Commission.
Bryar’s children were well accustomed to him being gone at least one night a week for a myriad of meetings he was obligated to attend.
The Bryar family enjoyed politics, local, state and national: Bryar railed against plans to develop, including the Eldridge Park area of Lebanon, advocated for state officials to locate the planned Interstate 89 through Lebanon, and, along with his wife, hosted Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in their home during New Hampshire primary campaigns.
But it is was his love of recreation that endures.
“If you put something in and make it first class, keep it well-mowed, and keep it looking nice and neat, people are going to use it,” Bryar told the Valley News in 1998. “It’s an asset to the community. It’s not a second landfill. That’s putting it point blank. It’s just wonderful really.”
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.