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Norma Lyon, Iowa fair's 'butter cow lady,' dies

Published on June 28, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on July 26, 2011 1:19PM


Associated Press

Norma "Duffy" Lyon, whose butter sculptures of cows, Elvis and even Jesus and his disciples delighted Iowa state fairgoers for nearly half a century, has died. She was 81.

Lyon suffered a stroke at her rural Toledo home Sunday and died shortly after at a local hospital, said Michelle Juhl, one of Lyon's nine children.

Known to most people as the "butter cow lady," Lyon was pregnant with her seventh child when she produced her first bovine butter sculpture, a 600-pound cow, for the Iowa State Fair in 1959. The rural Toledo housewife went on to sculpt a butter cow every year thereafter until 2006, when she retired.

She picked up her penchant for sculpting while earning her veterinary science degree at Iowa State University and helping her husband with the family dairy and beef cattle operation. In the midst of her animal medicine and mammalian anatomy classes, Lyon took two sculpting classes.

The butter cow concept was not hers; the Iowa State Fair has featured one every year since 1911 as a promotion for dairy products. Lyon got her start after working briefly under her predecessor, Earl Dutt, whose work didn't overly impress her.

"It was a good farm cow, but it wasn't a show cow," Lyon told The Associated Press in 1999.

While Lyon wasn't the genesis of the butter cow, she did expand the medium during her time as a butter sculptor for the state fair, much to the delight of fairgoers.

She began carving companion pieces to the cow in 1984, starting with a horse and foal. Before she retired, she had sculpted images of barns, a birthday cake, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Garth Brooks and Smokey Bear within her 40-degree refrigerated showcase at the fair.

In 1996, Lyon recreated Iowa artist Grant Woods' "American Gothic," the famous painting of a stern-faced man and woman with a pitchfork in front of a farm house, using butter.

The following year, Lyon suffered a stroke, but recovered in time to sculpt the traditional cow and a 6-foot likeness of Elvis Presley that saw fairgoers lined up around the building that housed it.

Sarah Pratt, who took over as "the new butter lady" in 2007 after apprenticing under Lyon starting when she was 14 years old, recalled the Elvis sculpture as the first one she had a large hand in helping make as Lyon recovered from the stroke.

Years later, Lyon hand-picked Pratt to succeed her as the head butter sculptor at the Iowa State Fair -- a designation Pratt wasn't convinced she could handle.

"She talked to me and said, 'You can do it. I have confidence in you,'" Pratt said Monday, her voice breaking with emotion. "That just meant the world to me, that she saw that ability in me. She will be greatly missed."

In 1999, Lyon took on what was arguably her most ambitious project: Her own rendition of the biblical story of the Last Supper, featuring disciples around a table leaning back on lounge chairs while Jesus stood at the head of the table with his arms stretched out, looking toward the heavens.

Lyon also garnered attention in 2007, when she publicly backed Barack Obama for president and appeared in campaign ads for him.

At the time, Lyon said she was backing Obama because "he doesn't believe in a lot of gobbly-gook" and spent time listening to ordinary voters.

That was typical of Lyon's wide-ranging interests beyond casting images in butter, Pratt said.

"She touched many, many lives in so many ways, beyond just being a sculptor," Pratt said. "She had a large family and was very active in her community and in politics and in education and farming and dairy promotion, her church."

But many memories of Lyon revolve around her love of sculpting.

"She was very patient and kind," Pratt said of her years learning to sculpt under Lyon. "She loved to tell stories, and she'd laugh and we'd laugh together. She was at her best, I think, when she was sculpting."

Juhl, who lives in Greene, was four years old when her mother sculpted her first butter cow for the state fair. She doesn't remember a time before her mother was known as the "butter cow lady," but she does remember getting to travel with her mother to Des Moines for the fair.

"Mainly because we got to stay at a motel and eat out," Juhl said. "Coming from a family of nine kids, we didn't get to do that very often."

She said her mother taught her the value of hard work, proper manners and grammar, and how to fend for herself, and that these lessons far outweighed any vacation she might have missed.

"My mom instilled in me a love of gardening and sewing," Juhl said.

A funeral service for Lyon will be held Friday morning at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Tama, Iowa, according to Kruse-Phillips Funeral Home. Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the church, and a vigil will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the church.

Lyon is survived by her husband, G. Joe Lyon, her nine children, 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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