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Joseph Lawrence Ryan

September 5, 1918 ~ November 16, 2018 (age 100)

Joseph Lawrence Ryan, 100, of DeWitt, Iowa died Friday, November 16, 2018, at Mercy Hallmar, Cedar Rapids.

He was born in Delmar Iowa at the end of the World War I period. DeWitt is located in the vicinity of Davenport and Clinton, IA, 20 miles from the Mississippi river. He was of a recent generation Irish- immigrant family; Thomas and Anna Ryan were his parents. The family had 7 children, Mary, Agnita, Evelyn, Alberta, John, Cleo and Joe. All his siblings preceded him in reaching their eternal rewards; Johnny, the youngest, died in 2011. Joe was raised in a hard-working, farming community. His father worked part time in farming and took on other jobs as they became available. For many years Thomas was a mail carrier in the DeWitt area (with horses). Joe grew up mainly as a “town boy” and attended St. Joes Catholic school, where he graduated in 1936. He was popular in the school and helped to lead the St. Joes basketball team to the State Catholic high school basketball tournament in 1936. He did not seek higher education; always a hard worker, he pursued various occupations where he developed a number of useful manual skills. He was always available to help family and neighbors with any number of tasks, from roofing to fixing oil furnaces to auto mechanics. In 1941 he met Mary McDermott from Charlotte (which may have been on his Dad’s mail route) and they were married at Immaculate Conception Church in Petersville in June, 1942. The first house they bought was a small DeWitt cottage. One of the first things he did along with his brothers’ help was to dig out a new basement under the house, with the use of horses, of course. He did report to the Army draft office in 1941, but was not accepted due to poor eyesight. His wire rimmed glasses were a permanent feature on his narrow face. The glasses magnified his eyes so that they had a large, all-knowing aspect. He was slim bodied, long-legged and nearly 6-ft tall.  He always held a determined aspect to his face as if he was prepared for whatever might come next.  In lieu of military service he worked for several years at the US Army Arsenal in Rock Island (manufacture of war munitions). He also drove a gasoline / fuel oil delivery truck (American Oil) in DeWitt for a number of years and also worked on farms and in auto service stations from time to time during these early years and no doubt aided in any number of family or neighbor building projects.

By 1950 he and Mary had 4 children (Lourdes, Larry, Regina and Dennis). He arranged for purchase of a 160-acre farm 3 miles north of DeWitt from Mary’s grandmother (Mrs. Beitenman), where they moved in 1950. Joe claimed he knew nothing about farming, but was willing to give it a go with his growing family. 3 more children were born after 1950: Martin, Teresa and Joe, which brought the cultivated “work force” to 7.  There was a lot to figure out with farming but he had the willingness to work tirelessly and also developed a whole menu of manual skills that would make the difference between success or not. He soon forgot his more carefree, factory-secured jobs and had to face the realities of making a living in the harsh climate of farm economics. He did continue driving the fuel oil supply truck for several years to help bolster the home finances. The term “stress” was not in the common vernacular at the time, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t occasionally pound on the side of the house in despair at one minor calamity or another, which is the nature of a diversified farm operation (pigs, milk cows, feeder cattle, chickens and cats), with over-used-used farm equipment that always failed at the most inopportune times. A tornado swept away the chicken coop and all the chickens in 1952. He wasn’t going to risk raising chickens again. But a tornado did not visit the farm again for another 12 years (thankfully no chickens were in the way the 2nd time). The farm did not have a telephone until 1958, the first television came later. The term “internet” at that time, if uttered, would probably have insinuated some type of fishing gear. He rarely ran to his task but loped with long, graceful strides across the farm property. While he was slim he was quite strong and could easily overtake fleeing kids with his long walking strides. His unusual arm and hand strength was still with him into old age.

The entire family was engaged in various aspects of the farming operation, however, for the most part, the women were seldom seen outside the house. They seemed to be fully engaged in baking bread and cakes and taking hurtful turns washing the dishes. The boys were force-marched outside each day to battle the animals and the elements. This “gulag” work force was not so much “encouraged” by their father but rather led by booming yells, screaming and scaring the hell out of young children. But everyone seemed to take it all in stride. About twice a year there was a group effort of all available walking humans in the household to help herd pigs for sorting and selling on the chosen day. The girls were a little gun-shy around all the pig dust and noise of screaming pigs which were being deprived of their free range life style. Occasionally a daring hog would charge the fences, as if the Bastille, and try to escape. As one of the girls might be cowering behind the temporary holding pen, Joe would wrestle the 230-pound rascal down with strong, sun-tanned arms in all the mud, dirt and “dirtier than dirt” stuff. He would cheerily carry the screaming hog to the front of the line while saying: “and this little piggy went wee-wee-wee all the way to market”.  The entire family (especially the girls) was relieved when the “hog round-up operation” was deemed terminated for the day, although they would rue the fact they would be wearing hog-stained shoes to school once again. Joe, in his stained light blue shirt and dusty, dark “American Oil” cap, skewed to the side, would have to eat breakfast outside due to the odors he had absorbed as he contemplated his to-do list for the rest of the day, such as cutting horns off young steers with a hacksaw (yeah, we really did that). During this period of farm life there seemed to be a natural affinity towards basketball among the boys, which in turn led to some surreptitious basket-shooting at a home-made basket/backboard during chore time, which meant neglecting feeding the pigs or milking the cows in a timely manner (but no chicken chores). These forays were often short lived, with a bellowing shout from the milking barn: “I will pop that damn ball!” So every effort was made to protect the ball. We were mystified how this former St. Joes’ basketball player could be so negative towards basketballs. Must have been the “stress”, whatever that was.

The Ryan farmhouse was located about a mile from the highway (#61) at the end of a long dirt driveway. During the winter the driveway would get blocked by snow drifts. So once we found it was possible to walk “over” 4-ft tall fences on top of the snow, Joe announced it was time to shut down the “driving” part of the “driveway”, which meant cold, harsh, long walks to the car before school, which was parked at the highway. After school we would reverse the Siberian march with the goal of working outside doing chores for another hour or so in a basketball-free zone. We learned to hate the long, Frozen Mile. Occasionally Joe would walk with the family in the morning with a scoop shovel for purposes of scooping out the car (and also help with starting the occasionally reliable 1950 “gray whale” Ford). Like a whale, it would plow through snow drifts at 40 miles an hour, sun glinting off the silver hood ornament, blinding-white spray billowing around the gray hulk. And in place of tail flukes of a whale, 4 (or 5) small heads in the back seat would bounce as if playing timpani on kettle drums in time with the fret-like gravel road bumps).

One January day (it must have been a Saturday or a “snow day” since all were home) during one of the awful winter years, when the snow was the deepest, the wind was the coldest and the family had been walking and shivering  up and down the driveway for what seemed like weeks, a salesman came sailing down the driveway in his big blue Hudson, nonchalantly inscribed a circle in the snow in front of the barn and pulled up in front of the house, got out and politely knocked on the door. It is certain no one had ever knocked on the door before (neighbors don’t knock), but the more astonishing vision was the “UDO” (unidentified driving object) in the snow-clogged farm yard. The car’s wheels were concealed by the deep snow so there was a momentary thought that perhaps the car had flown in, much as World’s Fairs, since 1922, had dreamily envisioned, but the thought was quickly auto-corrected with the reality that “Hudsons don’t fly”.  The confident man at the door was selling Beltone Hearing Aids and was responding to an inquiry submitted by a junior member of the household. Joe informed the gentleman this was merely something of a “joke”, though the blue Hudson gentleman did not seem to get it. He had driven from Dubuque (60 miles) in anticipation of an easy sale to a bunch of hard-of-hearing farm rubes. Working around back-firing tractors, screaming pigs and hollering fathers, hearing loss among the young farm kids is entirely plausible (and profitable).  Eventually it was agreed that the guilty junior member, who stammered that the information about hearing aids was just part of his 5th grade school science project, which, by the way, was “no joke”, would ride to the top of the driveway in the blue Hudson to get the mail. It seems parents in those days were a bit more cavalier with sending their latter-born away with strangers, possibly severely annoyed strangers, in blue Hudsons, under unusual, snowy circumstances. However, the mail did arrive intact back to the house. The issue of whether or not we could actually try “driving” up the driveway just like that blue Hudson sales guy, was never broached. Joe cultivated hardiness, not astuteness, in his children. He mumbled something about making ruts in the road (though the road would be frozen for several more weeks). We were not about to argue the point.

As the family grew, or rather “survived” from year to year on the farm (Joe actually ran over one of his boys with a tractor and wagon, but “no big deal”, while other kids occasionally rained out of the barn hayloft, but unlike cats, did not always land on their feet), outside interests were developed. Joe and Mary joined a square dancing club which involved them dressing up in rather odd, cowboy-ish dance costumes. Joe wore a string tie. Mary wore a skirt with 40 layers of fabric to provide a dazzling “whooshing” effect so that you wouldn’t actually notice the bare legs underneath. Joe was a graceful dancer. While both Mary and Joe had a strong Irish heritage, they didn’t seem terribly invested in standard Irish norms of behavior. There is no square dancing in Dublin. They also developed card playing clubs and other occasional outings to get away from the children, apparently. However, every 2 weeks the whole family loaded up the gray Ford and went visiting cousins or friends, which usually doubled the normal level of household chaos wherever they went. Education was valued in the household with Mary being a school teacher and all but one of the children went to college, some earning advanced degrees.

Larry, the oldest boy, started playing basketball for St. Joes (“Warbirds” was the team name) around 1959. Larry’s team was quite good and he was a star guard (nickname of “Firebrand”). Joe demonstrated keen interest in these developments (perhaps reminiscent of his own playing days) and got himself a position as official score keeper for the team. This would provide him a “front seat” at all the ball games (home and away) where he could watch and keep careful track of every minute, point and every foul of every game. He had an excellent memory as displayed in post-game analyses. In those days the St. Joes team would make their way to away games via parents’ carpooling.  As scorekeeper, Joe never missed a game and usually drove a car load of players and cheerleaders. These longer excursions to Clinton or Sabula or Marquette would provide Joe an opportunity for a “pre-game” and “post-game” litany of “do’s”, “don’t-evers” and “shoulda’s”. Yes, “LONG” rides. These lectures would be conducted with his magnified eyes focused on the rear view mirror, which had the effect of doubling the apparent size of his eyes, a long index finger jabbing for emphasis with 4 (or 5) pairs of scared eyes looking straight ahead in the darkness, hoping those large eyes in the mirror would not land on anyone in particular.  On the bright side however, he toned down the threats towards basketballs during chore time during this period. Sometimes if there was a cheerleader on board, squeezed between several large boys on game night, she would get a “talking to” also. Joe was brimming with advice. If only he had chauffeured the game referees … (can you say: “state tournament”?).

 St. Joes high school closed in 1968, after which time Joe continued score keeping duties at the “public school” (DeWitt Central) a few years after St. Joes closed (neatly bridging the Catholic/Protestant divide). This was a few years after the John Kennedy Presidential tenure and Catholic / Protestant rifts were lessened, but definitely part of the reality of the period. He was “official scorekeeper” between the 2 schools for nearly 30 years. But DeWitt Central had proper school buses for transportation, so those players were deprived of many gigabytes of “free advice”. All 4 of his boys played basketball during their 4 years of high school (and even briefly in college), so Joe was at every high school game they played , with a pocket protector-full  of colored pens and pencils and continued keeping score for another generation of DeWitt basketball players. DeWitt Central won the State championship in 1981 with Joe front and center keeping score in Des Moines.  He (including his pocket protector) was eventually named to the DeWitt Central Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007. He never did actually pop a ball in anger.

Joe’s health was always a point of contention for many years. He maintained that he was almost always ill and in great pain while Mary strived to prove him wrong by ignoring the majority of his complaints. He had rolled his own cigarettes for many years and was a connoisseur of Schlitz and Falstaff beers (likely an honoree stock holder due to quantities consumed). He was plagued with ulcers for many years, due no doubt to those stress-filled farming years. By the early ‘60s he began chugging Metamucil antacid in place of Schlitz and gave up smoking in an attempt to salvage the few remaining years he was convinced he had left.  Lumbago raised its ugly head one year, to be followed by a long litany of “eye-rolling” ailments that were practically endless. Of course, Joe nor the family would never actually go to a doctor’s office except for the necessary childhood disease inoculations for the children (or if someone happened to get run over by a tractor or trampled by a cow). Joe was pretty much on his own with regards to home remedies. He did not suffer quietly.  It was not uncommon to see him performing a remedy such as holding a block of wood against a wall with his head while seated which was intended to help ease a persistent sore neck. This “block-head” remedy may have merely improved his posture. His greatest pleasure, it seems, was getting back rubs (with lotion) from Mary. That seemed to solve all issues and dampened the complaints at least for the moment. While some religions nurture the belief that one’s eternal reward would be accompanied by “virginal bliss”, Joe would surely be satisfied with a lotion-laden (preferably warmed up) back rub. Mary once was commenting on young Joe’s future beyond high school, when Joe was still quite young. When the time frame of college for young Joe was broached (i.e. 1974), Joe (sr.) casually said: “I will be dead by then”. He apparently had a strong premonition of a pain free, lathered-up after-life and was anxious to get there. He just miscalculated by about 45 years. Even during his last years at Hallmar Nursing Home in Cedar Rapids he would often predict “any day now”, but that seemed to be an equally premature, yet endearing, sentiment. He was notably strong and healthy well into his 100th year, although his legs no longer allowed those familiar long gliding strides (or square dancing).

In 1965 Joe sold the farm when it became evident none of his sons were the least bit interested in spending any more time than they had to on the “gulag” farm. With a diminishing work force he could see the writing on the wall. In March of that year (after 15 years of farming), the family drove the Frozen Mile one last time, leaving “Savage”, the family dog, behind and moved to DeWitt. Joe’s mother, Anna, passed away the same month (March, 1965). His Dad, Thomas lived to age 92 (1979). Other transitions occurred about the same time. His two oldest daughters got married: Regina in Dec, 1964 and Lourdes in May, 1965. His first 2 grandchildren were born the following year. A few years later when Regina escaped an abusive husband and returned home, Joe embraced her and her 2 children (Lisa and Greg). When her coward husband showed up at the house one day Joe confronted him with his trademark, long-loped strides across the front yard with a “pop that damn ball” determination on his face, recalled a few barn yard phrases and the chump “rat-skittered” in his effeminate “Beatles” boots to his dumpy car and was never seen in DeWitt again. Joe bought a house in DeWitt for Regina and her kids and pretended it was a “rental”. He likely helped to “network” Regina’s initial insurance office job in DeWitt, which led to her successful 35-plus year career in the insurance game.  Joe took care of his family.

Joe took a job in DeWitt at a local gas station (Wendell Oil) after moving to town in 1965 and became a do-it-all auto service attendant at the station. With the weight of uncertain (or certain) farm catastrophes lifted off his shoulders, he became a contented fixture at the station and built up a loyal clientele for his dedication to service for his DeWitt friends. He rarely raised his voice ever again and came to enjoy the sound of bouncing basketballs in the back yard where he installed a concrete basketball court. He greeted everyone he met with a warm smile and a familiar, personal inquiry about their family.  He soon became a beloved fixture in town, having crossed the border between the Catholics at St. Joes and “the rest” with DeWitt high school basketball.  He now had more time to spend with the St. Joes Church where he did any number of volunteer activities. He would count money every Sunday at which time the parishioners would make their donations during the services and these funds would need to be accounted for each Sunday. He worked at Wendell Oil until age 70, (1988), never losing the long, purposeful strides towards his task. After “retirement” he then took on a part time job at the St. Joes school (now grade school only), where he assisted with janitorial duties for many years, at least until the early 2000s. He was a favorite with the young kids. He always kept busy between home maintenance, school tasks, helping neighbors, keeping score for the basketball team, etc. His home was spotless and did not need a new basement dug out with horses.  He and Mary travelled more during these years including a trip to Ireland in 1987. They would often take cross-country driving trips –Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, DC- to visit family and friends. He could drive straight through to Washington DC (about 14 hours).They also went to Japan in the late ‘70s to see their son Dennis who was in the Navy following graduation from the US Naval Academy. Joe’s impression of Japan was that everyone seemed “small”.

Joe also experienced the most severe of all griefs, the death of his oldest son Larry in March, 1968 (it was the weekend of the Iowa State Basketball tournament), who died in a US Navy airplane crash off an aircraft carrier during a training mission in the Gulf of Mexico. His body was not recovered from the chill waters.  His second son Dennis died suddenly at his home in Iowa City at age 62 in March, 2011. 2 great grandsons died shortly after birth to oldest daughter Lourdes in 1968 and in 1971. She was unable to return home from Texas for Larry’s funeral in March 1968 due to her delicate pregnancy at that time. Other premature deaths in the extended family (two nephews died in their early 20s, another at age 50) demonstrated Joe’s calm resolve and solid spiritual foundations. Joe and Mary had 12 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren and 4 great-great grandchildren.

In June, 1992 Joe and Mary celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They would celebrate 24 additional anniversaries before Mary died following a brief illness at age 95 in 2016. Joe (age 98) was severely heartbroken for many months following this event and often spoke of Mary being in heaven. Joe and Mary had moved to Cedar Rapids in 2009 when it became evident they could not manage their household by themselves any longer. Their home in DeWitt was sold to the St. Joe’s parish and serves as the parish rectory (priests’ home) just 3 blocks from the church and school. While Mary was more reluctant to move, Joe quietly stated that it was time to leave DeWitt.  They moved into an assisted living facility in Cedar Rapids and eventually transitioned through the increased care levels at that facility. Joe moved to the Hallmar Nursing facility in Mercy Hospital, Cedar Rapids, in June, 2015 when he was losing his mobility. Mary moved into the facility a few months later when she also experienced some incapacitating health problems. They lived together for one more year before Mary passed away (Nov 19, 2016).  Well into his 100th year Joe’s health was sound, he always had a good appetite and his mind was alert and quick to recall past events. He was largely immobile and slept a great deal during his last year, but was rarely uncomfortable and was well cared for at the Hallmar facility. His predictions of a much earlier passing (circa 1974) were greatly exaggerated.

Joe Ryan lived a full, dynamic life, the life of a small town Iowa boy and farmer who raised a family with the highest standards of decency and integrity; the type that is only earned through hard, diligent work. He was beloved in his community and is well-remembered for his kindness and generous community service. His 100-plus years of a loving, extraordinary life-example surely provides a good example for all to follow.

Now, how about some of that warm lotion, Mary?

We are still riding in the back seat of the gray, 1950 “snow whale” Ford plowing through snow drifts with Joe and Mary in the front seat, Joe’s steel-rimmed-framed magnified eyes gaze straight ahead at the silent, dazzling whiteness of it all while 5 heads in the back seat bounce like kettle drums for the duration of the journey.

     Lourdes, Regina, Martin, Teresa, Joe;    (Larry, 1968, Dennis, 2011)

Visitation will be at Schultz Funeral Home, DeWitt from 4:00 until 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, with a vigil service at 6:30 p.m.  A Funeral Mass will be at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, November 21, 2018, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, DeWitt with the Rev. Fr. Robert McAleer officiating and burial in the church cemetery.  Memorials are suggested to St. Joseph School, Mercy Hospice and Mercy Hallmar.

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