The Full Text of Ryan's Letter | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Full Text of Ryan's Letter

"It is a very odd fact that Chicagoans never boast about their city, yet they secretly seem to love it."


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Father's duties have always been somewhat vague in everyone's mind. In his twenties he seems to have been occupied principally with fancy vests, horse racing, attending prize-fights, and a great deal of social drinking. In short a rather well-known and well liked man-about-town. These entertaining activities were all financed gladly by his uncle. He also seems to have been one of the first men in America to own an automobile. During the years (at the Uncles) he evidently was in the construction business briefly (which he ignored) and ran for political office (as West Town Assessor)—wherein he was defeated. His subsequent stories were all of practical politics as opposed to academic or theoretical politics—about which he knew little. He also worked for the Peoples Gas Company. This job lasted one day and was always good for a one hour story.

Somewhere in here his brother Lawrence went to work for Uncle T.E. as some kind of clerk. His job involved handling some funds and he was ultimately accused by his uncle of a minor embezzlement. Larry was about as liable to have done this as to burn down the Holy Name Cathedral. Father sided with his brother and left his uncle's bed-board- and generous patronage for good.

On the interim his other brothers, Tom, Joe, and John (J.J.) had formed a construction company called The Ryan Company. My father and Lawrence became partners—and all five brothers remained partners until their deaths about 25 years later. The principal jobs were street paving and large sewer building. They became very prominent in the business, and at the time of the 1929 Crash were probably worth four or five million dollars. Dad's duties were in the beginning as a superintendent of sewer construction—this finally became the important part of their business. He also was immensely valuable as the contact who knew and was liked by the big Chicago politicians who doled out the jobs. He was a big man (6'4"-250 lbs.) with a radiant personality and strong sense of humor and was idolized by many people. His other side was only displayed at home and was very hard to take.

He was hard working when there was a job at hand but I think now that he was (in the career sense) almost totally without ambition. The company was really run by Tom, a rather cold and shrewd business man.

Dad, I think, would have been content to have enough money to live well, eat well, play bridge, and tell stories to his rather small circle of friends.

He was always generous and kind to me—in a day when father-son relationships were not thought of as they are now.

Mother had come down from Michigan to Chicago in her early twenties. She lived with friends and went to one of the good secretarial schools where she learned typing, shorthand, and clerical work. She was not only capable but very pretty and after one funny experience of innocently landing in a bucket shop (illegal stock sales) she was hired by the Chicago Tribune and quickly became secretary to one of the important executives—one Harrison Parker. Like all young women of the early 1900's she lived a very restricted social life. Her male associates at the Tribune, reporters of a kind later immortalized in "The Front Page" were not conducive to the good life or a good reputation. A girl friend on the paper introduced her to Lawrence Ryan, who subsequently introduced her to his brother, Tim. The die was cast.

Although cast, it was not immediately forged. Father subjected mother to a 1907 version of the high life—fancy restaurants, champagne, hansom cabs and the theater every night. The two impediments to marriage were Dad's religion (Roman Catholic) and his drinking (habitual). He finally convinced mother that she was not obliged to become a Catholic—he also quit the bottle for life. They were married sometime in 1908 by a priest and a minister and retired to a very different life that they had been living. Dad was broke and soon I was on the way.

We lived at Winona Street for four years. I went to three schools, (ending at Swift Public) spent long hours at the beach in the summer with the gang, became baseball crazy (I was never much good) and had what I thought was a pretty fine life. In the winter at Christmas time we would usually go to Rhinelander, Wisconsin to visit mother's parents. They lived in a little house and must have been quite poor—(I guess "modestly situated" would be the phrase). But it meant a train ride on the Chicago, Northwestern, arriving at 4 a.m. at forty below zero. It also meant some [tobogganing] and skiing—and lots of ice cream sodas (with Grandpa) and a few parties—all in all a wonderful treat for me.

We had no car as yet and walked everywhere—I think it was about two miles to the elevated station where we would all walk to go to various parts of the city—principally to the Loop. Every Friday afternoon I would haul myself and violin down to Kimball Hall for a lesson. This was given(?) by a bored Scandinavian named Martinson who played with the Chicago Symphony and practiced dentistry on the side. I may have been the worst fiddler that ever played—but I sharpened two qualities I did have—a good sense of rhythm and a keen ear.

There was a good deal of "gang" activity but it was a far cry from what the word means today. There was no delinquency—no destructiveness—no urge to break laws or windows. We merely stuck together and would occasionally play ball against a team from another neighborhood. Four or five of us would go to the Chicago Cubs Park on Saturday afternoon—or possibly in the winter to a matinee at the "picture show." A hunger to see movies was just beginning in me—it was later to become occupation No.1.

When it became apparent that we would move—because Father was doing better and the neighborhood was not what my parents wanted for me—I switched to Swift Public School near our new home. A few months later we moved to 5900 Kenmore Avenue—back to the street I was born on but about two miles north. The apartment was somewhat small but I had my own bedroom. Also I was aware that we were entering a new phase of our life. Things were better now—we had our first automobile—nice furniture was appearing in the house—and above all the "Twenties" were getting under way.

You will read and hear a lot about the "20's"—they have already become somewhat legendary. I will not here recapitulate what now fills history books—but it was an exciting time. Partly because America became the King of the World—partly because the heavy weight of hard work, and hard religion had finally been lifted, and partly because it began when I was ten and ended when I was twenty.

And we had our share of it. We had our first car—not long after followed by Cadillacs and Pierce-Arrows with chauffeurs (unliveried). My parents took a trip to New York and saw all the shows. Somewhere along the way I owned a Ford "roadster"—numerous bell bottom trouser suits—a fur coat and whatever else I needed. Dad and Mother spent their summers at Crystal Lake where they took up golf. I spent most of mine at Camp Kentuck near Phelps, Wisconsin which was populated mostly (the camp) by boys from the Chicago Latin School. In the winter Dad and mother went to a lot of parties and Dad became a patron of the Chicago Opera Association.

I finished Swift Public school in 1923 and entered Loyola Academy that fall. At Swift I had been a better than average student but no meteor. My going to Loyola was not determined by Dad's Catholic faith—it came from Mother's desire for a good school for me. The local public high school had attained a rather bizarre reputation even then—short skirts and "petting" parties—a big deal in '23.

Loyola was reasonably convenient and had a good if not great reputation. Also it was a Jesuit school—and these, if they never rise too high, also never fall too low. Furthermore, it was for boys only. My contact with girls was to remain extremely slight until I was about seventeen or eighteen.

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