‘Big teddy bear’ Bill Ryan’s life remembered

In his inexplicable way, Bill Ryan was true to himself right to the end.
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In his inexplicable way, Bill Ryan was true to himself right to the end.

The man many would say carried the ball for the local Republican Party for decades died alone on Christmas Eve at his kitchen table. Though weeks have passed, his death is known to only a few.

There was no obituary and no service. Ryan wanted it that way, said his longtime companion, Jane Carley. Those who knew Ryan well regard that exit plan as his last strategic act. As one friend said, Ryan probably didn’t want his enemies to know he is gone.

The 69-year-old General Electric retiree had a heart condition and diabetes and had been threatening to leave this world for nearly a decade.

“I’m a short-timer,” he readily told friends.

When his longtime friend and sometime foe, Mayfield Supervisor Herb McLain, found him Christmas Day, he ruefully reflected on those health warnings.

“‘You finally got your way,’” McLain said he felt compelled to tell Ryan.

Ryan and McLain had reconciled by 2005 when McLain ran a successful campaign for supervisor. He said Ryan collected petition signatures for him and took him around town to meet people.

Ryan introduced McLain as his best friend and wasn’t afraid to call in some markers. “I want to make sure you come out and vote for him,” McLain recalls Ryan telling one family, delivering the message as more of an order than a request.

At other homes, McLain said, Ryan would sit in the car. “Go in and tell them I’m out in the car,” he directed.

When the occupants would wave and acknowledge him, McLain said Ryan would yell from the curb: “I’m dying. I’m going to be dead in a year; I can’t get out.”

political exile

Ryan had been in and out of self-imposed political exile since the mid-1990s when he realized local Republicans and the administration of former Gov. George Pataki were not going to reward him for his years of service.

It was rough treatment for the man who entered local Republican politics in the early 1960s collecting signatures for Assemblyman Glenn Harris, now deceased.

In the ensuing years, he helped scores of candidates and was always counted upon to file petition challenges against candidates seeking to unseat a party favorite.

He knew the election law backward and forward and never lost one.

“He felt he was taken for granted,” Carley said.

After Pataki was elected, Ryan, the veteran committeeman, former president of the Fulton County Republican Club and recipient of the county’s top party award, waited in vain for his turn as many local Republicans were tapped for jobs, appointed to boards and commissions — and in some cases — acquired state jobs for their children.

“He was treated unfairly, no doubt about it,” one top local party official said Wednesday. “He worked so hard for the party.”

Ryan had a particular grudge against former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, for whom he collected 500 signatures during Vacco’s first campaign. In 1998, when Vacco did not respond to Ryan, Ryan contacted Eliot Spitzer’s campaign and Spitzer, himself, returned the call.

When Vacco was scheduled in the 1998 campaign to drive up Route 30 in Mayfield, passing Ryan’s house on the way to a luncheon at Lanzi’s on the Lake, Ryan had three Spitzer signs on his lawn awaiting the attorney general.

Party officials learned of Ryan’s trap and sent Vacco on a different route.

Ryan’s political reach was appreciated, McLain said, when after three heart procedures he could not obtain a ruling on his application for Social Security disability.

Ryan was able to enlist the office of then U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato to obtain the decision. McLain said he was given the disability and he feels he owes it to Ryan’s connections.

Ryan was a huge man. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighed about 350 pounds and his bald head made him even more intimidating.

“Bill had a feud with everybody,” Carley acknowledged with affection. “But as difficult as he was, he had a heart of gold.”

That is the consensus among his friends.

“He was a big teddy bear; I always told him that,” said Fulton County Deputy Election Commissioner Linda Madison.

Ryan was gruff with those he did not know. Madison said she would call him out on that behavior when she saw it. “Bill, you just want people to think you’re so tough,” she said she would tell him.

Madison said Ryan’s actions spoke for themselves.

“If you wanted help getting elected and Bill liked you, he would get you elected,” she said.

Ryan made it a practice to call his friends periodically. “Hey,” was always his greeting and he rightly assumed that one word would identify him.

Fulton County Clerk Bill Eschler said Ryan was good in politics because he knew everybody. On the campaign trail, he took candidates to meet people they would never otherwise encounter.

Ryan worked for former Mayfield Supervisor Sylvia Parker, when she ousted incumbent Democrat Leland Reed in the early 1990s.

“Bill was always right there helping me any way he could,” Parker recalls.

“Bill could be very loud and when he didn’t like somebody you sure knew it,” Parker said. When he was in that frame of mind, she said she would chide him, “Now Bill, you’ve got to take it easy.”

McLain said he and Ryan were allies in the early 1990s when Ryan got angry because he thought his garbage had not been collected on time. It was the wrong day for collection, but Ryan was not ready to accept that explanation, McLain said. The two had words on the phone and then Ryan drove right to McLain’s house.

It is all humorous now, but the two men were on the outs for years.

“You didn’t have to wonder how he felt about you because he wasn’t afraid to tell you,” McLain said.

his other life

Ryan had a life separate from politics. He was a champion breeder of exotic chickens and waterfowl.

He traveled the country to enter competitions. His black Cochin chickens, white Emden geese and Cayuga ducks won many awards during a 40-year career that culminated in 2001 with his election to the American Poultry Association’s Hall of Fame.

Donald Williams, the retired Gloversville school principal and author of numerous books on local history, grew up with Ryan in Gifford’s Valley near Northville.

“You might say he was a little bit wild,” said Williams.

The two childhood friends went on an adventure last year to the Mohawks’ St. Regis Reservation to see if they could find any information on Ryan’s maternal great-grandmother or his family’s Mohawk heritage. They had no luck.

Carley has been with Ryan for 12 years. She was visiting relatives at Christmas and is still having difficulty dealing with his death and his absence.

“He was such a strong presence … I miss him terribly,” she said.

McLain is also still moved as he recalls finding Ryan on Christmas Day.

It occurred to him that day, he said, that the man slumped at the kitchen table was once “the most powerful Republican committeeman in the county.”

At the same time, McLain said it was consoling to know that Bill Ryan was not forced to linger in some nursing facility.

Categories: Schenectady County

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