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The untold tale of Jim Dyson, the man who named the Buffalo Bills

The senior image from the Dennison, Ohio, high school yearbook, 1927, shows a young man with intense and electric eyes, thick hair parted just to the side. He was a three-sport athlete, a left end who served as captain of the school football team.

Asked to choose a famous quote to run beneath his photo, the teenager added the words “years” to a thought from English dramatist and poet, Sir Henry Taylor: "The world knows nothing of its year's greatest men." It was a play on Taylor's central point:

People who do great things are often overlooked.

Indeed. Meet James F. Dyson, the man who named the Buffalo Bills.

These are some of the things about Dyson, a Merchant Marine veteran of World War II, that ought to be remembered:

He was a clerk and later a manager for the Pennsylvania railroad who lived in Buffalo for a relatively short time.

He died at 66, in 1975, when he had a massive heart attack while mowing a lawn in Florida.

A niece – one of the few people who can still remember meeting him – describes Dyson and his wife, Anne, as warm and giving people who were never able to have children, which broke the hearts of their friends.

Thus the Dysons had no direct survivors — no one to keep alive their story.

Unless you count us, the greater Buffalo community.

Think of it: As the Bills begin another training camp, commanding the attention of an entire Upstate region, few in Western New York know anything about the life of the man who gave the team its name.

[Related: The nicest - and meanest - things ever said of Buffalo]

The yearbook image was the end of a long shot search that began at the Buffalo History Museum. A few weeks ago, while I was on a visit there, the museum staff showed me a recent addition: A Sept. 28, 1947 program from the original Buffalo Bills, donated by Francis Ptaszkiewicz, 87, a Bell Aerospace retiree from Tonawanda. Almost 70 years ago, he paid a quarter for that program, then watched Buffalo lose to the San Francisco 49ers, 41-24, in the old Civic Stadium - eventually renamed War Memorial Stadium.

A 1947 football program, original Buffalo Bills, cover image drawn by Don E. Sweet (Courtesy Buffalo History Museum)

A 1947 football program for the original Buffalo Bills, cover image drawn by Don E. Sweet. (Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum)

"I'm cleaning stuff out, and I was going to throw it in the garbage," Ptaskiewicz said. "Then I saw the museum is doing an athletics exhibit, and I thought maybe they'd want it."

That 1947 Bills squad played in the All-America Football Conference, upstart challenger to the established National Football League. Years later, in 1960, Ralph Wilson chose to revive that name when he put a team in the new American Football League.

The depiction on the cover of the 1947 program, drawn by an artist named Don E. Sweet, was wildly different than the standing or charging bison that represent the Bills today. Sweet portrayed a cartoon version of Buffalo Bill Cody, famed Pony Express rider and showman of the American West, riding a helmet-wearing bison through a crowded stadium.

The image all but screamed for an answer: How and why was the team first known as the Bills?

The answer began that year, with James F. Dyson.

The club played its initial season in 1946. In the way of so many Buffalo teams, the squad was called the Bisons. Accounts in old clippings at the museum indicate team owner Jim Breuil wanted a change. He sponsored a contest and offered a $500 prize to the fan who came up with the best name for the team.

Dyson won. According to a 1991 article by Dick Stedler for Buffalo Magazine, the team officially changed its name on Father's Day. Dyson won by suggesting "The Bills," while the runner-up choices were "Bullets," "Nickels" and "Blue Devils."

Yet for years, not that much was known of Dyson himself.

In 1985, the late Bob Curran – longtime Buffalo News columnist – contacted Dyson’s widow, Anne. As Steve Cichon recalls in this piece, Anne told Curran that her husband had been a fine high school athlete in Dennison, Ohio, population roughly 2,600. They moved to Buffalo when he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, settling at 90 Norwood Ave. Anne said Dyson read about the contest and came up with two ideas for naming the team. She didn’t identify the second option, but she said she urged him to go with “Bills.”

Brueil was president of Frontier Oil. According to Stedler, Dyson wrote a short essay envisioning the Bills as the frontier “posse” for Buffalo Bill Cody, who had killed thousands of bison on behalf of the railroads on the Great Plains. Cody - who lived for a time in Rochester - reinforced his public association with the animals when he made them a centerpiece of his Wild West Show. Even after Cody's death in 1917, he retained a strong presence in American popular culture: Joel McCrea and Maureen O'Hara, for example, starred in a 1944 Hollywood film called "Buffalo Bill."

The United States, in the years just after World War II, retained a romantic fascination with the Old West. While museum records indicate that more than a dozen entrants in the 1947 contest also nominated “Bills,” Dyson’s explanation was ruled the most compelling. Curran, in writing his 1985 column, also called then-Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who said he "could not see any reason why we should change the name" when Wilson brought professional football back to Buffalo, in 1960.

Thus, Dyson's position was reaffirmed as the man who named the Bills. You'll still find occasional references to the contest scattered across the Internet - including a note on the Bills website.

Anne Dyson told Bob Curran that her husband always remained a Bills fan - and that despite his death at a relatively young age, his friends believed he would "never be gone, so long as there is a Buffalo Bills team, playing football."

All the more reason to dig into the tale of James F. Dyson: Who was he? What did he look like? Did he have any children?

[Related: As 'zip line' opens, Six Nations faithkeeper on true meaning of Niagara]

The key person in solving the mystery: Megan Smolenyak, of Florida, a nationally celebrated researcher and genealogist. It was Smolenyak  who told me in 2014 that LeBron James’ grandfather, when he moved North years ago from Alabama, settled in Buffalo – giving this city a direct link in the lineage of The King.

Smolenyak went to work. She discovered obituaries for both James and Anne Dyson. The articles revealed that Dyson retired as an office manager after 44 years with the Pennsylvania Railroad, eventually called Penn Central. His career, for a time, put him in Buffalo, although it would later take him to Chicago and Texas. His obituary also noted he'd been captain of his high school football team at Dennison High, a school that shut its doors in the mid-1960s.

James F. Dyson's legacy in Buffalo: He suggested the name "Bills" for the city's football team. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

James F. Dyson's legacy in Buffalo: He suggested the name "Bills" for the city's football team. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

I thanked Smolenyak and contacted Cherie Shelt, 71, a niece in Ohio who remembered Jim Dyson with reverence — and a touch of sadness. “He was a funny, loving person who could always make you laugh,” Shelt said. “I can remember when he came here: He used to do this trick with his thumbs where he’d put them together and make it look like he broke one of them. He loved children and everyone always said he would have been a wonderful father.”

The Dysons were never able to have children, said Shelt, who knew of no existing photos of Jim Dyson.

My last hope: If Dyson was a football star, his image almost certainly would be in his senior yearbook. But that meant finding an 89-year-old  yearbook from a tiny Ohio high school that closed a half-century ago. I called some museums and libraries in the general area of Dennison and Uhrichsville, a neighboring town, hoping someone would have old Dennison yearbooks. No luck.

There was one final chance, a kind of Hail Mary pass. When Dyson died, his wife brought him back to Dennison for burial by the R.K. Lindsey Funeral Home, the same funeral home that would later bury Anne.

That business remains open. R.K. Lindsey IV, who runs the place, took my call. He discovered that a few people around Dennison – including a man who once played poker with Jim Dyson – still remember how a native son named the Bills. As for the distant hope of locating some photos, R.K. said he would ask his dad, Kells Lindsey, now 70 and retired. R.K. said his father is the kind of guy who hangs onto artifacts pertaining to his hometown.


James F. Dyson, senior portrait, 1927 Dennison High School yearbook. (Photo courtesy of R.K. Lindsey Funeral Home)

As the saying goes: Eureka.

The Lindseys called back the next day. It turns out that Kells had an uncle who was a student in the late 1920s at Dennison High School. Kells ended up with his uncle's yearbooks - including the 1926 and 1927 editions. He passed along the good news: They provide a treasury of Jim Dyson photographs and information.

There was Dyson's senior photo, above a brief biography that offered a few facts. He was known as “Jimmie.” He took mechanics for two years. Dyson noted in the book, with teenage humor, that he was involved in something called “Yimmie Yohnson’s Yob.”

He was also a three-sport athlete – football, basketball and baseball – who as a junior played on the first football team in school history, then returned from an injury to captain the team as a senior.

The yearbook said he "put a lot of fighting spirit into the squad," and included a wonderful image of Jim Dyson in a leather football helmet, an image that ought to be someplace where people can see it at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

[Related: In Buffalo, trying to shatter the 'Curse of Ban Johnson']

Kells Lindsey understood how Dyson chose his career. Much like Buffalo, Dennison's fortunes were tied to the rise and fall of the railroads. The Ohio village once was home to 40 acres of railroad yards, and more than 20 passenger trains stopped there every day. In the 1920s, when Jim Dyson came of age, the old Pennsylvania Railroad was still going strong ....

And Buffalo Bill Cody, dead for only a few years, remained a hero to little boys who dreamed of being cowboys.

"He was the son of a foreman on the railroad,” Kells said of Dyson, a young man who chose to follow in his father’s path. One of his big moments in football was a 60-yard touchdown run as a junior against Danville, population about 1,000 in the most recent census. He married Anne after high school, and the couple lived in the Dennison area until the late 1930s, Kells said. Then Dyson's career took him around the country, with an interlude for his service in World War II.

He had returned from the war, and was working in Buffalo, when he read about the contest to name a football team.

Dyson was only 66 on the day he fell dead while mowing his lawn in Deltona, Fla. He had no immediate survivors except his wife, although Cherie Shelt - the niece who recalls him with such affection - said he was a man people respected, the kind of person who could lift your spirits when he walked into a room.

He also chose a variation on a powerful quote to summarize himself for his senior yearbook: "The world knows nothing of its year's greatest men."

As it turns out, the young James F. Dyson was a prophet: In Buffalo, we ought to know about the guy who named the Bills.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. How do you believe James F. Dyson should be honored? Leave a comment below or email Kirst at


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