NMSU couple successfully takes on the next frontier
by Norman Martin
To understand what led Don Lytton from a farm in southern New Mexico to an international business career in southwestern China, you have to dig deep into the scientist’s background.
Agriculture and NMSU have always played key roles in his family’s history. Great-grandfather Oscar Charles Snow was a member of NMSU’s first graduating class. Decades later it was Don’s turn. After growing up on a farm near Mesilla Park, he earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy at NMSU, where Kim Briggs, his future wife, was a music major. After they married, he finished his master’s degree here in soil science in 1982.
For Don’s doctoral work, the family moved to Mississippi, and after he graduated in 1991, the Lyttons were invited to join friends in southwestern China. “We didn’t have a lot of international experience, but it was a new frontier for us,” he said.
He signed on as a soil scientist at a Chinese university. With their two daughters in tow, the couple then embarked on a true adventure, moving to mountainous Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. The New Mexicans smoothly blended into the region’s 26 minority ethnic groups, thanks in part to the locals’ love of spicy foods.
“The Chinese are convinced that only they in the world eat chile,” Kim said.
Yunnan Province takes in the tropics, with elephants, peacocks and bananas, and the Himalayan highlands, home to Tibet. What Kunming didn’t have, though, was a school for children of foreign-born families. The Lyttons and family friends started one in 1994.
“In the early years, what best prepared us was a farm background,” Don said. “You learn to be a problem solver and to make do.”
Despite the success of their academic school, Don was eager to expand his career horizons. “In 1993, we left the university system and struck out on our own. And we struck out several times, too,” he joked.
Today, Don is director of rural economic development at Yunnan Danyun Business Affairs Consulting, a Danishowned company located in Kunming. The company’s focus is to help clients take part in the growing Chinese market and expand China’s resources into the international markets.
Meanwhile, Kim, who graduated from NMSU in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in music, has found a receptive audience among the Chinese people for her music. Four years ago Kim, an accomplished violinist, vocalist and songwriter, placed second in a national talent show for foreigners, winning critical exposure and the hearts of many Chinese.
“Since then I’ve been on stage and television across China, particularly in Yunnan,” she said. “All the songs and interviews that I do are in Chinese.”
For a little perspective, it’s important to note the Yunnan Province alone has a population of 43 million, and a single broadcast of what is called YN TV can reach some 200 million people.
This year Kim’s career expanded to include a part in a Chinese television program playing a university administrator. “I’ve actually had to get an agent,” she said with a laugh. “There’s a growing industry of foreign actors in Chinese movies, but the actors must be fluent in Chinese.”
Despite their international travel schedules and demanding careers, Don and Kim keep close tabs on NMSU. Their oldest daughter, Alison, graduated from NMSU in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in English and is currently completing a master’s degree in international studies at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Their youngest daughter, Melissa, is a junior here on campus, majoring in elementary education.