Lives They Lived: Phyllis Layton was ‘a beacon of welcomeness’

October 27, 2018

Phyllis Layton was a woman ahead of her time.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s when Rochester was largely a wholly owned subsidiary of white Scandinavians, Layton was at the forefront of an effort to make the city a more welcoming place for people of different races and origins.

Layton was a doer. During the course of her life, she would become involved in more than 20 organizations and groups. Everyone around town knew Phyllis.

Among her activities, the Rochester International Association was, as one friend said, her baby. Layton co-founded the organization. It became the vehicle through which she worked to widen Rochester’s embrace of people different from the white majority.

When she died Oct. 11 at age 90 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and old age, it was also her legacy.

“Her legacy is one of inclusivity,” said Herta Matteson, a friend of Layton’s. “It was just a very deep-seated belief in humanity and mankind. She was involved in everything and anything that had to with diversity.”

Whether the person was handicapped, belonged to the LBGT community, or an immigrant, Layton’s skill was getting people involved and making them feel a part of something. She had a simple tactic. She wouldn’t take no for answer.

RIA sponsored and organized the World Festival, the city’s annual celebration of diversity. It had been founded in 1976 by Fuad Mansour as part of the city’s bicentennial celebration. Rochester had little racial or ethnic diversity at the time and that which it did have was largely confined to people employed by Mayo Clinic.

The work of Layton and others helped prepare a welcome mat for the waves of immigrants that would arrive in Rochester, starting with Southeast Asian refugees in the late 1980s.

“She was one of the key people in the community that made this place welcoming to people,” said George Thompson, among the first African-Americans to move to Rochester in the 1960s. “She was a beacon of welcomeness.”

Matteson moved to Rochester in 1988 and soon gained firsthand knowledge of Layton’s ability to recruit and pull people into her orbit. Matteson first met Layton at an RIA meeting, and before she knew much about the World Festival, Matteson found herself serving as its chair.

“Sometimes, I think she ran around town and grabbed people in the street and said, ‘do you want to do something,’” Matteson said. “Within a very short period, I was engaged in things that I did for the next 30 years.”

Don Layton, her husband, said Phyllis began exploring and writing about themes that foreshadowed the person she would become early in life. Only after she died did Don discover a collection of her writings, some of them composed when she was a girl, “about becoming a person and becoming a woman.”

“She really turned out to be an amazing woman,” Don said.

Layton graduated from Oberlin College in 1950. Her education nurtured within her the humanitarian values of peace and justice. It was also where she met Don. They were married on July 14, 1951, in Glencoe, Ill. The couple moved to Rochester in 1961.

Layton received the Mayor’s Medal of Honor for co-founding the RIA and her work spreading the value of diversity.

“She was certainly one of those who made Rochester a very welcoming city to people from other places,” Matteson said.