By Monica Borge
James (Jim) Ryan has worked in the arts and music for the last 50 years. By far, what he is most proud of, Ryan said, is a radio he made for a play at Nerinx Hall High School’s Insight Theatre. After a production of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” someone offered to pay $500 for the Marconi radio used on stage. They made the offer without the knowledge that the radio was hollow and put together with cardboard and swimsuit liner.
“It didn’t have to work. It was hollow and we just put a speaker in it and wired it up for music,” Ryan said. While he talked about the radio, his eyes lit up and he sat a little taller, wearing a proud smile on his face.
Ryan was one of Webster University’s first male graduates. Besides him, there was only one other man, Dan Coughlin, standing on stage with him. Ryan graduated from what was then called Webster College in 1964. He will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his graduation this year.
Ryan said he did not mind that Webster was still transitioning into a co-ed college while he was there. While Ryan was attending Webster, a note was sent out to the student body inviting them to attend a campus event. The note shows that Webster was still working on transitioning to a co-ed school.
“(Webster) sent me a note telling me to wear my heels, but I couldn’t find my lipstick to match,” Ryan said.
Ryan said he found his love for building sets and props while he attended Webster College. Webster needed a lot of workers to make their shows come to life, and Ryan was eager to volunteer.
Ryan made the Marconi radio for Insight Theatre, a community theater production company that works through Nerinx Hall. Ryan has worked as prop master for Insight Theatre since the company started seven years ago.
“That’s what I really like to get involved in. I like making things from nothing or adapting something from something else. It’s fun,” Ryan said.
Insight Theatre was founded by Ryan’s wife Maggie Ryan in 2007. She said Ryan has helped her develop the company from the beginning.
Webster College’s theatre department
Jim Ryan spent so much time in the theatre department that he ended up working on productions for them.
“When you go to a big university, you don’t go anywhere. You’re stuck in your degree and you don’t get to see other people. At Webster, I really liked the freedom of things,” Jim Ryan said.
Helping the theatre department was one of Jim Ryan’s favorite memories at Webster. The department was always recruiting help. Working with them is how he discovered his fondness for building props and sets. He enjoyed it so much that he even helped Webster’s production company Theatre Impact put on outdoor summer productions in Kirkwood Park.
“We worked through the night. Many times we worked right on through three shifts of the police department. Each shift change, the police would come around to see what we were up to,” Jim Ryan said.
Jim Ryan’s favorite production he worked on with Webster’s theatre department was “Carnival” not only because building the set was fun, but because working on “Carnival” is also how he met his wife Maggie Ryan, who graduated from Webster in 1965.
“He has such a sensitive soul, that’s what attracted me to him. He is so enthusiastic about life,” Maggie Ryan said.
Jim and Maggie Ryan got married in 1965 on Christmas. Both of them have had long careers teaching in the arts. Even after retiring, Jim Ryan has continued to work in the arts with his wife’s Insight Theatre Company.
Jim Ryan’s decision to attend Webster
In 1962, Webster College let men enroll, but only offered a select number of classes. Jim Ryan had recently finished school at Springfield Community College in Illinois and was looking for a college to finish his last two years of school. He was drawn to Webster because of its reputation for having a good music department.
“I saw it as a good opportunity for me. It was the opportune moment. Right time, right place,” Jim Ryan said.
He chose to go to Webster because it let students study both instrumental and vocal classes, whereas other schools at the time had students choose between the two.
Jim Ryan’s schedule was split between attending his music classes for half the day at Webster and going to Saint Louis University to take his general education classes. Webster was still transitioning into a co-ed school and only offered major-specific classes for men. Webster did this because the Sisters of Loretto, who founded and ran the school, wanted to see if letting men attend Webster would work out.
During this transition, men weren’t allowed to live on campus until 1971. Jim Ryan said he didn’t mind the commute because he liked attending Webster.
Jim Ryan was involved with the arts throughout his two years at Webster and continued to be a part of the arts after graduation. He taught for 43 years and retired in 2007. He worked in the public school system as a band and voice teacher. While Jim Ryan was teaching at Roosevelt High School, he worked with Joe McBride in his band class. McBride looked up to Jim Ryan.
“If there was something that I could tell Jim Ryan, I would tell him thank you because he changed my life. He’s one of my heroes,” McBride said.
McBride has glaucoma and was going blind in high school. Jim Ryan encouraged McBride to pursue his love for music and performing even with his disability.
Jim Ryan helped McBride get into college by making sure he took the right classes and exams, filling out financial aid forms, taking him to auditions and being a friend to McBride when he needed it most.
“My favorite part about teaching is the children and being creative in the classroom,” Jim Ryan said.
Jim Ryan enjoys teaching because he gets to teach students about what he loves, and he likes to watch his students develop. He said he tried to bring something new to teaching.
“I always felt that we needed to bring these walls down between music, theatre and the arts,” Jim Ryan said.
His teaching style was inspired by Webster, which he described as an open education system.
This idea of bringing together all forms of art is why he got his master’s degree in Aesthetic Teaching from Northeastern Illinois University. Jim Ryan said he believes that if the music, theatre and art department talked to each other and worked together, they could produce great work. He credits this idea with all the interdepartmental work he did at Webster.
“I am very fortunate. When I look at my career, I got to do everything,” Jim Ryan said.
Jim Ryan said he is slowing down, but he still wants to continue helping out as much as he can.
He has been involved in the arts for the majority of his life and continues to build props for Insight Theatre. Every time he walks into the prop storage room at Nerinx, he gets to see his prized cardboard Marconi radio.