Etta R. Lyles, 76, librarian for state environment office


Etta R. Lyles, who overcame a troubled upbringing and an abusive marriage to enter college in her 40s and over the course of 15 years earn a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and a doctorate, died of cancer Thursday at her son's Bel Air home. She was 76.

Dr. Lyles worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment, where she established a library, from 1986 until her job was eliminated by budget cuts in 2002. Though in her 70s, she went back to school to become a paralegal and last fall completed an internship in the Maryland attorney general's office.

Dr. Lyles seldom shared her life's struggles with friends or co-workers - the last one her cancer diagnosis in November.

"She told us it was a cold and the doctor had prescribed more antibiotics. She refused treatment," said Gloria Lyles, her daughter-in-law. "However, she struggled and finished her paralegal certification in December. She was an extremely motivated person, and nothing was going to stop her."

Etta Reid was born and raised in Salisbury, N.C., the daughter of an abusive father.

"She grew up in the rural South and in grinding poverty," said her son, Alan Lyles, a professor of health systems management at the University of Baltimore.

Her formal education ended in the sixth grade when she dropped out of school and went to work in nearby cotton mills. She married in 1949, and in 1956 moved to Baltimore - five years later ending her marriage to an abusive alcoholic.

Dr. Lyles worked a number of entry-level jobs in order to make ends meet while raising her only child and studying for her General Educational Development certificate.

"We were independently poor, and she worked both day and night jobs. She worked in a loan office and cleaned offices," her son said.

In the late 1960s, she took a job in the accounting department at what is now Towson University, and, after being awarded a scholarship in 1972, she began her college studies at what is now Morgan State University.

She was a summa cum laude graduate in receiving her bachelor's degree in education from Morgan in 1976. A year later, she earned a master's in history there. In 1978, she added a master's degree in library science from the University of Maryland, College Park while working as a substitute teacher.

Dr. Lyles, who lived near Patterson Park and later in Armistead Gardens, earned her doctorate in American studies from the University of Maryland, College Park while working as a librarian at the Department of the Environment.

"She wanted nothing but the best for the department, and cared about providing the best service possible. She always went the extra mile and stayed as long as it took to secure information that employees had requested. She was always interested in helping others," said George Harman, the department's manager of environmental assessments and standards.

"She was a very studious person who was also very anxious to embrace new technology. She immersed herself in computer technology and established contacts with major library sources in the area," he said.

After her job was eliminated, Dr. Lyles enrolled three years ago at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus to become a paralegal.

"She was such a sweetheart and left a big impression here. She had so much energy and liked studying the law," said Patricia Ferraris O'Neill, chairman of the department of legal studies at Dundalk.

"She was an incredibly smart person who was very astute and interested in politics. She was also a woman of incredible integrity and tough-minded. And she never stopped wanting to learn," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the college and a close friend.

"I believe if she had studied the law 50 years ago, she would have been an incredible attorney. She was a great student and always had an opinion," said John J. Handscomb, an adjunct professor at Dundalk who teaches civil procedure and business law.

An art history buff, Dr. Lyles enjoyed traveling to Europe, Italy and Mexico, where she visited art museums.

She was a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Baltimore.

Services are private.

"She willed her body to the state Anatomy Board and wished contributions in her memory be made to the House of Ruth," a shelter and program that assists victims of domestic abuse, her daughter-in-law said. The address is 2201 Argonne Drive, Baltimore 21218.

Also surviving are two granddaughters.

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