Ryan helped build Janesville with hands and heart

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011
— William J. Ryan died Saturday after a lifetime of work that helped make Janesville into what it is today. He was 87.

Friends remember Ryan as an energetic, intelligent man whose life touched most people in Janesville.

Ryan served on the board of Mercy Health System for decades, helping guide the hospital with financial difficulties to today's multi-faceted health-care provider. He served several terms on the Janesville School Board at a time when the city was growing by leaps and bounds.

Ryan and his brothers, Tom and Don, were the third generation of Ryans in the road construction/earth-moving business. They formed the road-building Ryan Brothers in 1952, according to an online company history.

Ryan was president of Ryan Inc., a heavy-construction company, as it expanded to become a nationwide contractor.

Aside from the family business, Ryan joined with friends and business associates that included Jim Fitzgerald and J.P. Cullen to build Janesville's cable TV system in the 1960s. They later did the same for about 40 other cities in Wisconsin and Florida.

The investors also built Janesville's now defunct Holiday Inn on Milton Avenue and bought and sold the Milwaukee Bucks.

"We were having fun doing it, too," Fitzgerald recalled. "That was kind of our credo: ideas to make money but to have fun doing it."

"He was a good partner and a good friend," Cullen said. "He was very strong in whatever he believed in. He was an excellent leader."

Ryan also developed an artist's touch in photography, became an expert on Ireland and his family's origins, was a world traveler and played a good game of golf.

"Bill loved Ireland," Fitzgerald said. "It was a magnet for him."

Numerous trips turned into a hobby, and Ryan became something of a tour guide, taking friends on trips to the Emerald Isle.

John Hough of Hufcor traveled to two Olympic games with Ryan, in addition to trips with a business group called Young Presidents Organization, which took the men to destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

"He was a perfectionist" when it came to photography, Fitzgerald said. Ryan developed a love for the changes he could make to the images he captured, playing with form and color, according to a 1996 Gazette article.

Longtime friend Dick Rost called Ryan a thinker and the most energetic person he has ever known.

"He always gave 100 percent," Rost said. "He was always interesting and fun to be near. His conversation always was of high interest and always meant more than most people's."

Ryan and many of his friends and business associates go back to when they were students at St. Mary School, Janesville High School or his college years. Some, like Fitzgerald, played football and basketball with him.

Scott Owen remembers listening to Bill's jazz records, playing tennis at the Ryan home and the fact that Ryan's high school nickname was "Horse," an allusion to "Lighthorse Harry" Wilson, a halfback for Penn State in the 1920s.

Owen appreciated his friend's dry sense of humor, and Fitzgerald called him "one of the kindest, nicest human beings I ever met."

Ryan's civic contributions are too numerous to mention here.

"He was deeply absorbed in civic matters. He loved Janesville," Fitzgerald said. "It was a form of joy for him but also a form of frustration," because getting something done as the boss of a company was much different than making changes through the political process.

"It's that World War II generation, and those guys did so much for Janesville," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, whose father was a cousin to Bill.

Ryan said "Uncle Bill," as he called him, was the family's longtime patriarch, being the oldest brother in his generation that saw older family members die fairly early.

"Uncle Bill was bigger than life," Paul Ryan recalled, and with his wife, Joan, always at his side, they made "an incredible couple."

"He was a guy who lived life to its fullest—family, history, art, charity, business, travel—he did it all and did it with gusto, enthusiasm," Paul Ryan said. "And he did it all very well."

Last updated: 6:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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