The pied piper of Roanoke Park

IMG_5341by Ann Brooke Raynal
photographs by Juli Leonard 

You might know Lyman Kiser. You might know him if you’ve ever been to Roanoke Park in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood on a Saturday and heard the giddy shrieks of children as they are propelled headlong down a jerry-rigged, baby-oiled slip’n’slide.

If you’ve seen your child careening through a canopy of oaks on a home-made zipline, then you might know Lyman Kiser. If you’ve received an urgent email summons at 8:30 a.m. to grab the kids for an impromptu kickball party at 8:45, and you set out, knowing that dozens of other dads and kids will be there, you probably know Lyman Kiser. And if you’ve hiked four hours to the top of Mount Mitchell with 52 dads and children from Raleigh, then it’s a sure bet: You know Lyman Kiser.

Pied piper. Master of ceremonies. Community organizer in the truest sense of that term, Lyman Kiser is the man behind the “Five Points Dadz” phenomenon. The Five Points Dadz, as they call themselves, is a group of unusually hands-on, active, outdoorsy fathers who might not have come together without a bandleader. These men, most of whom live in the Five Points neighborhood and have children ages 3 to 10, are delighted to dance to the beat of Kiser’s drum. His vision, organization, and outrageous sense of humor set the tone, ensuring that some fun group activity is (literally and figuratively) just around the corner.

IMG_5303In the last five years, Kiser’s band has grown from a few neighborhood friends to a listserv of more than 70. He organizes outings and fun in Roanoke Park, Underwood Elementary School playground, or nearby Fred Fletcher Park, as well as semi-annual weekend-long camping trips to the North Carolina mountains. Tuesday evenings, Kiser gathers dads and kids for bike rides along the greenway to the Raleigh Ale House, where kids can eat for 99 cents.

“Lyman is the straw that stirs the drink,” says longtime friend Joe Brazel. “We only get credit for showing up.”

IMG_5513Kaiser, 46, a Raleigh native and Broughton High School graduate, works as an insurance broker with GPa, the former Gene Pleasants agency.  He and wife Molly McNeill have two children, Holden, 9, and Anna Cash, 6.

“Lyman is just a big kid at heart,” McNeill says, “which I suppose is why he loves planning all these activities for the neighborhood kids. But, unlike the kids, he enjoys the planning part almost as much as the actual trip or activity.”

An avid cyclist, climber, and backpacker, Kiser does love to organize, and he makes it sound simple. “Cheap, easy, and local, that’s my philosophy,” he says. “Some of my favorite activities involve parties in the park. We count heads and chip in for pizza. Sometimes we’ll get fancy and roast oysters.”

Without Kiser’s initiative and enthusiasm, “this group wouldn’t be very active, let alone this awesome,” says Ian Mehr, one of the original members of the group. “Lyman is the glue.”

He’s able to draw them far from home, as well. In the fall, the group camped out for two nights at Mount Mitchell. This May, they will head to Linville Gorge.

“To take young children camping, you have to be pretty laid back,” Brazel says. And Kiser is the coolest cat of them all. “He can put up with a lot of ambiguity. He doesn’t worry. He doesn’t show the anxiety most people would feel planning a weekend for 50. You should see his shopping list!” Item number 20 on that list: a flame-thrower.

Somehow, McNeill says, “He has faith that it will all come together.” Every year, she says, Kiser raises the bar, adding something new to the trip, like a costume contest, a talent show with prizes, or ghost stories with props and actors. The menu is another work in progress. “He wanted to figure out how to bake cookies on a camp fire using a cast iron pot.”

Unsurprisingly, Kiser has another motto: “More is better.” He is constantly adding new names to the list. It’s an inclusive rather than exclusive group. “I’m always recruiting,” he laughs. “No one gets shot down.” New dads show up at every outing.

If there’s always room for one more, Kiser believes there’s also always room for improvement. On a recent trip to Maine, he passed by a man playing guitar and singing American folk songs from a songbook. Lyman was intrigued by the idea of a group sing-along. “I’ll give you $20 for that book,” Kiser said. A couple months later, he made enough copies to go around.

The annual “co-ed” Christmas party at Churchill’s on Glenwood Avenue is a “bring your friends” kind of event. “It’s important that everyone is invited.”

And Kiser is always tinkering with already-popular activities. His next goal is taking a 300-gallon water tank trailer to the hillside at Dorothea Dix to make a truly gigantic slip’n’slide. His eyes light up at the very thought.

Many of the dads attribute some of the success of Kiser’s group not just to his enthusiasm, but to the Five Points neighborhood itself. “You couldn’t have the Five Points Dadz group without Lyman, but you also couldn’t have it without this neighborhood,” Brazel says. “There are just a freakish number of 3 to 9 year olds in a very compact area.” The lots are small, which promotes the use of community space. Another thing: “No garages,” he says. “That’s key!” In other words, nobody can drive into his garage and disappear.

The dads agree that Roanoke Park – with its jumble of shared plastic ride-on toys, community grills and an open playing field –lies at the center of the Five Points universe. Friendships for adults and children alike are easily made. “Everyone is welcoming, helpful and friendly,” says dad Neville Devlaliwalla, who points out that local residents can all take advantage of the same things: walk-ability and proximity to great schools, restaurants, and parks.

IMG_5622“I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather live and raise a family,” says dad Ian Mehr. If Lyman Kiser is the “straw that stirs the drink,” it seems the drink was pretty sweet from the start.