NEW LONDON — If Donald Lytle were telling this story, he would begin by leaning back in his chair and smiling — you know the one, that smile that never seemed to fully leave his face. The story would probably have some unexpected twists with some obvious embellishments and eyebrow-raising details. He would then make a cheeky joke with a characteristic wink at the end.
Everyone who met him—whether they knew him as Farmer Don, Mr. Lytle, or Father—knew one thing for sure: the man was a storyteller.
From racing down the winding steps of the farmhouse as a child to performing in high school plays at Avon Grove High School to entertaining his grandchildren in his rocking chair, he always knew how to bring people together.
This was especially true as decades ago he invited his neighbors to Lytle’s farm to one of the first produce companies in the area. Even today, parents and grandparents bring their children to pick pumpkins, and some still remember how Farmer Don would routinely call out, “Tail to the bale, feet to the floor,” as the tractor roared by.
At the age of 90, Donald Lytle passed away on Wednesday, January 4th. And all of these stories that Lytle has spent his life telling are just part of the reason why this New London man’s legacy will continue to shine brightly in his local community and beyond.
‘Right time and place’
Not long ago, Lytle told his grandchildren, “I’ve been in the right place at the right time my whole life.”
And there was something about the way he said it… you had to believe him.
He was in the right place at the right time when he joined his father in delivering eggs throughout Wilmington, Delaware. And when his high school agriculture teacher recommended he try growing strawberries at age 16 – a venture that later led to a long-term pumpkin business when a late frost threatened his strawberry crop.
Of course, he appeared at the real square dance where he will meet his future bride Peggy.
Time and luck led him to the Air Force during the Korean War. He remembered a conversation with his young wife: If Eisenhower had won the presidential election, he would have joined the Air Force rather than the Army. That decision took the couple to Texas and—when Lytle joked he was sick of the heat—to Alaska.
Working as an Air Force carpenter in a hobby shop on base, he learned to make intricately designed leather purses and bags, as well as wooden coffee tables, ceramics and more. Undoubtedly, his self-proclaimed “gift of the gab” and instant connection with people gave him that leg up as well.
When he returned to the farm, starting his own egg routes in Newark and Wilmington, he ran into a customer who said her husband was in charge of hiring at the new Chrysler plant nearby. Did he want a job?
He was back where he was supposed to be. As Lytle said this, he went to the front of the line and told the hiring manager that the woman had promised him a job. Many years later, not only the work and stories of the hardworking trade unionists remained in the memory, but also the friendships and stories they exchanged back and forth.
A life that does not fit into one story
The story of Donald Lytle, however, is much more than dots on a map or dates on a calendar.
His family will tell you that he had a laugh that was unlike any other, big, genuine and contagious. He had a mischievous manner that started in a small school in New London and continued in high school where his classmates named him the most likely to be the school principal…because he spent so much time in that office.
He was proud that he could outwit just about anyone. Except maybe that time in aviation. Knowing that the dreaded kitchen job of cleaning pots and pans belonged to the last man to arrive for KP or “kitchen police” duty, Lytle hatched a plan to secure his place in line overnight. But when he fell asleep at the door, each of his friends stepped on his sleeping body, and when he opened his eyes? You can bet there was a dirty pile of pots and pans waiting to be scrubbed.
These were the stories he liked to tell, with lots of laughter. He often told a joke about himself or a lesson he learned from a lost fingertip or other injury on the farm.
Whether Lytle was telling stories in his living room, at a produce auction, on the farm or even at McDonald’s, it was how he connected with people. And those moments brought him tangible joy. It also gave him unique friendships with so many people in the community.
In time he developed a sense of local celebrity, and his grandchildren were proud to say, “Yes, my grandfather is that Donald Lytle.”
Those moments with his grandchildren, and later his great-grandchildren, he probably valued the most. Together with Peggy, he expressed his love for the famous grandparents, shared meals and T-shirts brought back from the trip, and in not so typical ways – have you ever heard of a birthday present that included baby goats?
Donald and Peggy were partners on the dance floor, on egg routes and almost 70 years of marriage – and Lytle stood by his wife and cared for her in the most difficult days near the end of her life.
While Mama Mama would always call to let you know how beautiful the moon looked one night, Pop Pop would call to see if you were (or weren’t) watching Phillies or Eagles games, depending on whether he believed your watching would bring Philadelphia happiness.
And he would dream of the good old days when Google didn’t take all the fun out of guessing the answers to stupid questions.
Donald Lytle was unique. A man with a big heart who worked hard and loved his community and his family. He told countless stories during his 90 years and planted the seeds for many more stories yet to be told.