Paul Ryan's journey from Janesville

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, August 12, 2012

— Paul Ryan’s older brother Tobin recalled how their parents dragged the Janesville family backpacking up a rugged Colorado mountain one July.

When they finally struggled to the top, in a snowstorm, they looked onto a meadow below filled with sheep, shepherds and a lake.

“And this little squirt—he was probably 7 at the time—started singing ‘America the Beautiful,’” Tobin said of Paul.

“We just let him sing, a cappella.”

Years later, Tobin and his wife, Oakleigh, would take breaks from their jobs in London to return home and manage Paul’s first run for national office in 1998.

At 28, Paul had set his sights on Congress, and he has since served more than 13 years as a U.S. representative. He has chaired the influential House Budget Committee the last four years.

On Saturday, the presumed Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, named Paul as his running mate.

Paul Davis Ryan was born Jan. 29, 1970, in Mercy Hospital, the youngest of Paul and Betty’s four children.

The children grew up at 215 S. Garfield Ave., building forts and climbing trees with a tight group of neighborhood kids in a ravine at the back of the family home.

The sweet memories are the reason Paul and his wife, Janna, bought their current home, which backs up to the other side of the same ravine.

Tobin, interviewed Saturday, was still a bit stunned about the latest development in his brother’s political life. He learned of Romney’s decision Friday night, just hours before it was made public.

Tobin said several episodes in Paul’s young life shaped his eventual choices.

One was the election of Ronald Reagan and another an internship in Washington, D.C.

Mom Betty and Dad Paul insisted on a family dinner with conversation, Tobin said.

“We talked about events, and you had to be at dinner, every night, 6 o’clock as a family,” Tobin recalled.

While theirs was not a particularly political family, Tobin remembers his parents viewing Reagan as “the real deal,” someone who inspired them, Tobin said.

Even though he was only 10, “I think Paul was listening intently,” Tobin said.

The death of Paul’s father, though, was the most pivotal event to shape his brother’s life, Tobin said.

On Aug. 13, 1986, Paul was alone when he discovered his dad dead at age 55. His father had died of a heart attack during the night. Paul tried to resuscitate him anyway, Tobin said.

Betty had been visiting her daughter in Colorado and was into a two-day drive home. Tobin was home from college and was having breakfast with a popular high school teacher, Frank Douglas.

Paul was just 16.

“Either one of us can replay every minute of that day,” Tobin said. “And then, the two of us had to make a lot of the decisions.”

Afterward, Tobin said Paul “became this rock” for his mom and grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s and was living with the family. Paul’s other siblings no longer lived at home.

While the family is related to the city’s Ryan construction family members, this branch of the family did not have the same kind of money, Tobin said. Paul’s grandfather had also died young—at 56.

“He’s waking up early to brush my grandmother’s hair to get her ready for the day,” Tobin said of Paul.

Paul encouraged his mom to return to college, and she rode a Van Galder bus to Madison every day to earn a second degree, Tobin said.

“That junior year, he becomes class president at Craig. He grew up very, very rapidly,” Tobin said. “Individual responsibility became something very, very real.”

Paul later served an internship with U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten through American University in Washington, D.C. Paul graduated with a degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Ohio in 1992.

Kemp told Tobin: “Your little brother is going to make a big difference in this world someday,” Tobin recalled.

That’s probably when Paul started seeing himself as a policymaker, Tobin said.

Paul met Janna Little, an Oklahoma native from an influential Democratic family, in Washington, D.C.

Dana Little Jackson, Janna’s sister, was in Janesville on Saturday to help her sister and husband when they return home later today. With a smile, she described an “Oklahoma Democrat as being more conservative than a Massachusetts Democrat.”

Dana said Janna called her sister after Janna’s first date with Paul.

“She told me he reminded her of this friend in high school, which said to me very kind, very earnest,” Dana said. “He’s every ‘morning in America,’ she said: so positive, so energetic, so nonsystem.”

“I know this sounds kind of corny, but when I met him, I thought: ‘Oh, I totally get it,’” Dana said. “I opened the door and saw them together and remembered thinking, ‘There’s my brother-in-law.’ They had so much chemistry and were so comfortable together.”

Paul and Janna married Dec. 2, 2000, in Oklahoma City.

Today, when Paul needs a break from his office and wants a home-cooked meal or to watch a Packer game, he spends time with his sister-in-law and her family, who live in Maryland.

Dana described her brother-in-law as having a unique combination of ordinary and extraordinary.

“What you see is what you get with Paul,” she said.

“I guarantee, of any congressman today, this is a guy who spends the least amount of time in Washington. He is about the most authentic guy I know,” Tobin said. “He’s more interested in you than he is in himself.”

Some might find it hard to believe, but Paul has never been a ladder climber, Tobin said.

“I still don’t think of him as a career politician.”

“My sense is, knowing him better than just about anyone, that he tested quite diligently whether he could still make the same policy impact as the vice president as he could leading the budget committee,” Tobin said.

“He’s enormously passionate about getting this country on a different path.”

Tobin said his brother is a man for the times.

“Maybe he thinks, ‘It’s now or never,’” he said. “We’re on a precipice, and I think he’s going to demonstrate to America that we will fall over if we don’t change our ways.”

Last updated: 5:10 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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