A Conversation with Bob Lytle

A Voice and Pillar of the Community

Bob Lytle has worn many hats during his more than four decades in the Rochester area: community pharmacist, author of adventure novels for youth, city council member, folk singer/songwriter, poet, storyteller, and ballist (yes, that’s the term) with the Rochester Grangers vintage base ball club.

Bob sits in a chair with bookselves behind him

Bob Lytle in his Home Library – photo by Deborah J. Larsen

Lytle grew up in Saginaw, where his father was a schoolteacher, but his fondest childhood memories were made at a small cabin in the Les Cheneaux islands. The Lytle family summered there, on property that Lytle’s mother inherited from two women for whom she had worked as a teenager. The islands in Lake Huron, northeast of Mackinac Island, offered all the adventure that a young boy could want: boating, fishing, hiking, exploring, and plenty of fodder for the imagination.

From the age of eight, Lytle knew that he wanted to become a pharmacist. The father of one of Lytle’s classmates ran the local drugstore and Lytle began to observe the pharmacist, Mr. Brennan, on his frequent visits to the store to fetch his mother’s arthritis medication. He was fascinated by the store and the way that Mr. Brennan ran it. It was a busy central gathering place and it seemed that Mr. Brennan “knew absolutely everybody in town.” Lytle decided early on that he wanted to be a pharmacist in the mold of Mr. Brennan, one who was dedicated to serving the people of his community, and knew and greeted his customers by name.

After completing high school, Lytle entered Ferris State University to begin his five-year pharmacy course. During the summers, he worked at Mackinac Island – at first as a dock-porter transferring luggage for the Island Park Hotel, and later has a porter at the yacht dock. While working on Mackinac Island he encountered college students from wealthy backgrounds who were planning study years abroad, and he began to look for an opportunity to do likewise. Because Ferris’s pharmacy school had no such program in place, Lytle took the initiative to correspond with schools in England and Ireland. Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, had a pharmacy program and was willing to coordinate with Ferris for Lytle to do a year of study there. After some negotiating of details, Lytle was off to Belfast for his fourth year of pharmacy school.

Lytle’s arrival in Belfast coincided with the beginning of the era known as “The Troubles.” The conflict erupted between a mostly Protestant faction that wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, and a mostly Catholic faction that advocated leaving the U.K. to form a united Ireland. The deep divide spawned riots, bombings, and other acts of violence and terror over a period of three decades.

Bob holds a guitar ready to sing

Bob Lytle at Rochester’s Poetry in the Park

Lytle noticed the tensions among the people he met in Belfast. An avid folk singer since his youth and a lover of Irish folk music, he quickly learned that even the music scene in Belfast was fraught with peril. “If you sang the wrong song, or ordered the wrong kind of beer in the wrong pub, you could get your tail beat,” he said. Sports were also segregated along political/religious lines. Lytle, a Protestant, thought nothing of playing basketball with mostly Catholic teammates; but in Northern Ireland that line was generally not crossed, his fellow students informed him.

After returning to Ferris and completing his degree, Lytle worked for some retail drug chains including SuperX and Perry Drugs, but still had the dream of running his own community pharmacy. He and his wife, Candy – whom he had met on Mackinac Island – began looking for the right place to establish their own business. When they visited Rochester and saw what was at the time the Morley Pharmacy in the old Opera House block, Lytle realized that he had found what he was looking for. “As soon as I saw the building, I knew,” he recalled. “It was right in the middle of town. It was an absolute dream come true.”

The Lytles bought the drugstore business in 1976 and then-31-year-old Bob “hung out a shingle” for Lytle Pharmacy. He thus began his tenure as proprietor of the longest continuously operating drugstore in Rochester’s history. The business – originally established in 1832 by Dr. Rollin Sprague – went through a succession of locations, as well as owners, including Sprague, Hudson, Norton, Stanley, Schoolcraft, Fetter, and Morley before falling under the stewardship of Bob Lytle.

Lytle soon found himself interested in Rochester’s history – and not only because of his business. Vaguely aware from stories told by his father that his family had ties to Rochester, he learned from his sister’s research for her Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) application that he is a descendant of Lemuel Taylor of Stony Creek.

Lytle’s first decade in Rochester was a difficult and challenging one. Michigan’s economy was doing poorly during the late 1970s and early 1980s; interest rates were sky high, and so were expenses. “We were operating more or less hand-to-mouth,” Lytle said. “We had to pay our suppliers in cash. We really struggled.”

Bob looks at the damage of the large window and frame laying on the floor

Bob Lytle surveys blown out windows in Opera House building – photo courtesy of Robert A. Lytle

At the time, the Lytles rented their retail space and did not own the building. A storm in the mid-1980s blew out one of the big opera house windows on the second floor of the building, and the Lytles’ landlord proposed to brick up the opening rather than replace the glass. Lytle found the idea appalling, and talked with the Rochester Downtown Development Authority (DDA) director about it. “She told me there was not much I could do unless I owned the building,” Lytle remembers. “So we started talking about how I might be able to go about buying the building.”

Bob looks at the damage of the large window and frame laying on the floor

Bob Lytle surveys storm damage to Opera House building – photo courtesy of Robert A. Lytle

Rochester’s DDA director was instrumental in helping to put together a complex deal for the purchase of the Opera House block, which included multiple financing products and grants. Part of the package for purchasing the building included the exterior restoration, which removed the uncharacteristic mansard roof on the front elevation and restored the building’s iconic Richardson Romanesque arches. The restored building was then listed as a Michigan Historic Site, and has more recently become part of the City of Rochester’s historic district.

Lytle has been a writer of poems and songs since his youth, and has used poetry as a vehicle to capture memories of his own children growing up. “Instead of using a camera, I tried to preserve those moments in poetry,” he said. Later, as his sons grew up, he moved on to writing adventure stories for youth, several of which were inspired by his own adventures on Mackinac Island. Another book, Bulwick School: A Yankee Lad in London, was drawn from experiences during his year abroad in Belfast during “The Troubles.” His interest in local history also led Lytle to write some time-travel stories with area connections. One of them, Mr. Blair’s Labyrinth, is set at his historical home in Lake Orion, and the story in Three Rivers Crossing stems from his family connection to Stony Creek.

These days, Bob Lytle is retired from full-time work. About a year ago, he and his wife sold the drugstore business to another community-minded pharmacist, John Blanchard. Although Lytle still pulls on his white lab coat on occasion to work a fill-in shift behind the pharmacy counter, he now has more time to devote to his writing. He enjoys looking out over the lake adjoining his home and letting his imagination carry him to far-off times and places. He’s currently finishing a memoir and another novel, so we’ll all be seeing more from the talented pen of Robert A. Lytle.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Amazing … Deborah Larsen … As always! What a wonderful tribute for the Lytles. I have so many memories of working at Lytles. And after 30 years. Of course with Pam and Stacie … I’m still there. John … He is an amazing person and Pharmacist. And our Home Town Pharmacist. Is so Lucky to have him. He will carry on the tradition!

  2. RON KEVERN says:

    Loved this story! Have chatted with Bob often as we have a mutual friend. Good Man, Bob! Proud to know you.

  3. Thank you for sharing g this wonderful story about Bob! Yes, he epitomized the caring small town pharmacy. I remember during the power outage in 2004, most downtown businesses closed. Bob was so dedicated to his customers who needed their medications that he stayed by the back door so people could pick them up. My husband was one of those customers!

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      I believe many people in town have stories like yours. Rochester has been very fortunate to have Bob Lytle in the community.

  4. Julianne Kautz says:

    Great article! I worked with Bob from 1984-1988, and was there during the renovation of the Opera House! Great memories … great boss! He gets my vote for Grand Marshal for the Christmas Parade! Enjoy retirement, Bob!

  5. Karmel Sowers says:

    Wonderful story! Thankful for people like this who really appreciate Rochester. I just still want to call it Morley’s. After this story, I’m more inclined to call it Lytle’s.

  6. Andrea Slater says:

    Bob is family to me, second cousin via marriage to his wife Candy. A beautiful telling of his life. I know my cousins, Geoff, Jamie, Ian and Bo are super proud of their parents.

  7. June Hopaluk says:

    Thank you for an interesting article. Thank you to Bob for restoring the Opera House building. Thank you to Bob and Candy for their many years making the Lytle Pharmacy the most welcoming store in downtown Rochester and the best place to find sweet gifts for friends and for grandchildren. Waiting for the next book.

  8. Harlan Worden, Sr. says:

    We moved to the Rochester area in 1983 and we looked for a place to have our prescriptions filled. We tried them because he was close. His store and treatment of customers reminded me a similar pharmacy in Lake Orion, Van Wagoner’s, where I had worked while in high school and college. I really got to know Bob and Candy when I began to play Vintage Base Ball with Bob onboard the Rochester Grangers Vintage Base Ball team. Bob is the epitome of everything he does. Father, Pharmacist, husband, writer, Poet, ball player, singer Civic Humanitarian and probably anything else he would attempt. We are proud to able to call him friend!

  9. Dick Dice says:

    One of the greatest joys of my life is being best friends with Bob since we were preschool kids. Lots of great adventures and they’re still coming. I can say I knew him before he was famous!

  10. Kay Karam Satchell says:

    What a great article. I have known Bob since high school days @ Saginaw Arthur Hill, even had his dad as a teacher. And I was always happy to catch up a little when dropping into Lytle Pharmacy when I lived in Rochester.
    It’s nice to read about many things I did not know about Bob. Now I know “the whole story.”

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