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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The boys at Loyola came from the upper middle class of Catholics in Chicago—they were mostly Irish, lots of O'thisis and O'thats. The very wealthy went East somewhere. The school probably didn't have one genuine delinquent in it. I never heard of any of its graduates getting into the tiniest trouble anywhere, anytime. A good number of them became priests. They had an enormous sense of fun, however, and a good deal of wit. This is supposed to be typical of the Irish and based on this one experience with them as a group I would say it is true. Also, remember, that wit in the young is very rare.

I think they were above average in intelligence and I know I was above their average. In my last year I was given the award for combined excellence in scholarship and athletics.

I was bright but not studious—and the results showed it. I was not a "plugger" and I've spent my subsequent life trying to become one. Application without talent is worth something—but talent without application is worth nothing.

During my time at Loyola my marks got better and my activities got more numerous. I was on the football team and the track team—the debating society, the literary society and the Loyola Prep (the school magazine). I was very shaky in mathematics—somewhat rocky in Latin (four years required)—and practically led the field in English. I was greatly attached to Father Conroy, our English teacher, and through him had my first brush with Shakespeare—he was madly in love with "Hamlet" and as I recall I knew it by heart when I left his class.

What I may have learned is, of course, very dim and I see now that whole huge areas of a fruitful life were almost ignored. Jesuit education was books and drill and writing and some discussion. One teacher repeated "Repititio est mater studiorum" almost every day. Violations of order were penalized by staying in to "jug" (after school) and writing something out in Latin a thousand times or so. There was no corporal punishment, even then. The Fathers were well seasoned men who had a good deal of authority that they seldom used.

My senior year I was All-City tackle (Catholic)—had the Ford—wore a black bearskin coat. I didn't drink or smoke. I was (and we all were) much less sophisticated in some ways than boys are today. But we were stronger, harder workers, and in many ways more adult. Our parents said that we were none of these things—and they were right by their standards. (My Uncle Sam, for instance, would arise at 4 a.m. in a Michigan winter, eat a cold breakfast, and walk seven miles in the snow in temperatures from 10 to 40 below zero—start the huge furnaces at the Iron Works—work for 10 hours and then do the seven miles home. Before resting he swept the sidewalk clean of snow and chopped the wood for the next day). It is a truism that parents howl about the younger generation but it is also a truism that succeeding generations are getting physically softer. (The U.S. Army records). This is not a moral but an environmental fact.

When I graduated from Loyola the "boom" was at high tide—the Kingship of America was shared by stock brokers, (Insull), bootleggers, (Capone) and athletes (Babe Ruth). The first two were Chicagoans.

I had very dim ideas about which college I would go to. I was, however, going somewhere. Most of the Loyola boys did, although college education was not the usual thing it is now. Practically all my classmates packed off to Georgetown or Notre Dame or Loyola University. One or two went to Northwestern and a couple to Illinois.

Through my summer associations at Camp Kentuck I was with boys who were bound for Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Chicago. I got the idea of going east because (a) it was snobbish (b) it meant leaving home, which I was anxious to do. I just thought of Princeton for reasons I can't remember (I think I read a novel about it) and then later switched to Dartmouth. Dartmouth got on the American scene in 1925 by being the national football champs—they were never so before that and have not been since. They also created the passing type of game that exists today. They, were otherwise, known as the source of the "Dartmouth College Case" and the alma mater of Daniel Webster. I was also influenced by the fact that Dartmouth required no examinations (from certain schools) and that two or my closest friends (John Goodwillie and Jack Weisert) were going there.

The summer before I went to college I spent near Missoula, Montana. One of my councillors at the camp had been a Yale graduate named Frank Scully. He came from a wealthy Chicago family and had bought a ranch near Seeley Lake, Montana—in the foothills of the Mission Mountains about 65 miles northeast of Missoula. He had some vague idea of starting a "dude" ranch altho I see now that he mainly wanted to get away from the stock and bond business; the heaven that all good Yale boys went to. He had a partner named Dick Nesbitt (also Yale), so the ranch was called the S/N (S N Lazy Bar).

It proved to be a lovely spread of land with woods, streams, and nearby mountains in profusion. My trip out to it remains one of the high points of my life. I had never seen plains that never ended—where one seemed to be becalmed in a purple ocean. As we got into the foothills of the Rockies and finally saw some of the high peaks I was aware of a lift of spirit that I shall never forget. It was strange to be so far from home for the first time and yet to feel as if I was coming home.

The summer was very exciting—riding horses all the time—doing a lot of hard work—sleeping in a tent—and living in such marvelous country. I fell in love with a girl named Thora Maloney whose father ran "The Stage" (a pickup truck) and I would sometimes ride 10 or 11 miles at night to see her and indulge in what was called "necking." I can't remember what she looked like but whatever she had—it caused me to travel 20 miles on horseback, at night, after a long hard days work.

The summer came to an end and I was aboard the Chicago and Milwaukee and homeward bound.

A very brief interlude in Chicago for the great packing-up-for-college and I bade farewell to Mother and Dad. Altho I was an only son (with all that that means) I recall that my Mother was more willing to let me go than was Dad. (and she wasn't very willing) He didn't get the point—packing off 1300 miles to the state of New Hampshire when there were five colleges to be had within an hours drive. Mother must have sensed that I should go—though I hope she didn't know how much I wanted to go.

You can not know the difficulties that attend an only child. Two big grown ups are beaming in on him all the time—even when he isn't there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape. This, then, was my first breakout.

My first weeks at Hanover remain as a confusion of feelings. The jumble of boys from all over America (mostly New England). The quietness of a small town (the first I had ever really stayed in) and the beauty of the White Mountains which stretched to the east and north of the college. So in one year I had the experience of first absorbing the majestic grandeur of the American west and the quiet beauty of the American north-east.

I made a kind of name in my first year being on the freshman football team and also becoming college heavyweight boxing champion. It was the worst of my 4 years scholastically. The work was, of course, more difficult but mainly I was at my worst beginning something—this has always been true of me. Shyness or fear or both has always inhibited me to the point of non-function EXCEPT in the theater. I have the fear but I also have the function.

Anyhow I got thru my first year—a year that was enhanced by my visit to New York (with the freshman team). I obviously had a thirst for travel that year that I've never quite equalled.

I spent the following summer again at Scully's Ranch and fell in love with a girl named Thula Clifton (I was evidently great for picking names). This romance got no further than the previous one—and ere long I was back at Hanover.

I see no reason to dwell in any detail on the four years at Hanover. There are a few events (outside and in) that perhaps I ought to record, however.

Scholastically I improved throughout my four years. My last two years were of Phi Beta Kappa standard. This, however, is not as remarkable as it seems. In these years I was able to concentrate entirely on English literature, my major, and a subject that I [text missing] always dreadfully difficult and would have lowered my average had I been required to take them throughout.

I lost interest in athletics toward the end of my sophomore year. Altho I was strong and quite fast—I wasn't particularly good and didn't have too much interest—found it mostly drudgery. I stuck it out with boxing until the end of my junior year and then stopped all athletics for good.

While I was there we had the CRASH (or start of the depression) and I was hardly aware of it till about two years later. Also there was a terrible fire in one of my father's tunnel projects and 14 men were killed. I am sure that both of these events caused my father's early death.

I can only remember reading a lot of books, worrying about the clothes I wore, dating one or two girls fairly steadily, having my first drink, (never too heavy in those years) and not very happily thinking about what lay ahead of me after graduation. I realize now that I wanted to stay in a nice warm atmosphere where I was somebody and not venture into a strange world where I was bound to be nobody. I felt that commencement would be a sorrowful terminus. It was. I still had an awful lot to learn.

I shall stop here because what else there is to be said you already know much about. Such things as have been said and written about me are, in the main, fairly accurate. At least they will serve to satisfy any curiosity you might have.

Read this with my love.

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