How fast we can forget those who have made a significant impact on the community. Nan Pyle is exactly an example of that. While she has been dead for more than 20 years, her impact, while often controversial, still lives on in Payson.
Nan was born as Nathalie Holbrook Smith in Upper Montclair, New Jersey on Feb. 26, 1915. Her grandfather was Levi Holbrook, who’d amassed a fortune on Wall Street. Born into an upper class Eastern family, much was expected of Nan. But she did not fit particularly well into this upper class society and after one failed marriage, she decided to come West, moving to Glendale, Ariz. She eventually met Lewie (Lewis) Pyle and married him in March of 1952. He was quite a bit her senior and was the son of Elwood Pyle, from Payson, Ariz. Lewie was a true Westerner, having grown up under the Mogollon Rim and guided Zane Grey. They moved to Payson.
Payson was a very small town in the early 1950s. There was not yet a paved highway from Phoenix to Payson and the population explosion of the coming decades had yet to occur. Here was an Easterner coming into this very small town. Gordon Sabine’s quote from an old-timer in his book, Nan Pyle: Payson’s Unhappy Millionaire, explains it well, “if you came in an outsider, you could live here fifty years and still be an outsider.” While there’s still a certain dynamic of this in today’s Payson, it was even stronger back then. And certainly there’s a general distrust among Westerners in general of Easterners, further complicating things. Naturally, not everyone cared for Nan and some doubted her motives for the things she did. And in the coming years, she would do plenty in Payson.
Nan was not afraid to spend money and in the coming growth era of Payson, she often put her money to very good use.
For a long time Payson had a mixed history of doctors being here. You will find mentions of local doctors going back to before 1900, but overall it seems a bit sporadic. Even in the late 1940s you can find articles talking about the need to airlift patients to Cottonwood, no easy trek.
In the 1950s Payson built a hospital, aided by a $20,000 loan from Valley National Bank. But by the early 1970s, even with continued fund-raising, the hospital wasn’t in tremendous financial shape. Nan stepped up, donating the ranch she owned in memory of Lewie Pyle, who died in 1974. The ranch was then sold, raising $100,000 for the hospital. Thus on Sept. 9, 1978, the hospital became known as the Lewis R. Pyle Memorial Hospital. Nearly 15 years later though, the hospital would be renamed, removing the Pyle name, in what was a somewhat controversial decision.
One of Nan’s passions was animals and certainly animal care in the area improved while she was here. She owned a cattery with Lewie. She set up a small clinic for animals in the back of her home and offered it rent free to a veterinarian, as long as he would take care of her animals. His monthly visits helped provide some veterinary care to the people of Payson. It’s worth noting that she was known all across the state for her fine cats.
She also helped create an art center in the early 1960s. She envisioned it as attracting artists and making a ton of money and helping make Payson a better place. It failed miserably though and was eventually donated to the Girl Scouts who then wanted to sell the property, much to Nan’s disapproval. The sale was delayed until after her death.
She spent a lot of time at Payson’s library, which for a long time was in the Woman’s Club building on Main Street. She was passionate about reading and donated a lot of books to the library.
Nan also had her share of problems. She was an alcoholic and battled with her weight, things that undoubtedly contributed to her controversial status in the region. But nevertheless, she contributed a great deal to the community in the time she was here, of which only a short sample has been provided here.
The foundation that she created, the Holbrook Pyle Foundation, continues to fund improvements across the state. In April 2010 it provided a grant for improvements at Payson’s Goat Camp Ruins. Nan died on Oct. 9, 1985 and is buried beside Lewie Pyle in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery. Her funeral service at the Payson High School auditorium drew a full house.
For more information, grab a copy of Gordon Sabine’s book, Nan Pyle: Payson’s Unhappy Millionaire, which can be checked out at the Payson library. This book was written in 1993 and is a tremendous read, providing not just a feel for Nan, but for that era of Payson as well.