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Friday, February 23, 2024

Guiding Hands

There’s an old saying beloved by sports commentators that goes like this: “Boy, that kid must be tough: He’s from the South Side of Chicago.” Every time Ron Ryan hears it, he smiles.

Long before Ryan arrived here to take on the tough task of directing the Boys & Girls Club of Evansville, he was the tough kid growing up in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Scottsdale, with all the attendant hard knocks. He was the oldest of six kids, raised by a divorced single mother who worked as a waitress.

“By age 11, I had pretty much become man of the house,” Ryan recalls. “My mom’s a saint. I love her to death. But a single parent, forced to work several jobs, there’s no way you can take care of your kids. When you get home, you’re so tired that you’re lucky to take care of yourself.”

Now 45, Ryan looks back with some wonder on all his youthful opportunities to be seduced into gang life, drug abuse, and other self-destructive behavior. He remembers what it was like for he and his siblings to subsist on food stamps and government cheese. And he can’t forget what it was like to lose a sister, diagnosed with a chemical imbalance, to suicide at the age of 15.

“We did what we had to do,” Ryan says. “What saved me is that I grew up living on ‘The Corner.’” That was the neighborhood-speak for the Scottsdale Park in Ryan’s South Side neighborhood. It included a field house where kids chose activities including basketball, wrestling, boxing, gymnastics and board games. Outdoors were baseball fields, a playground, and fire hydrants that would be uncapped on hot summer days. “Everything,” Ryan says, “a kid needed.”

For Ryan, The Corner represented the realm of good choices where a kid could be off the street in supervised, constructive activities: “I spent every day there in the summer, except when I was sleeping.” A mentor on the staff became someone he dared not disappoint—a matter of pride. Sports kept him out of trouble in school and earned him a scholarship from the University of Illinois-Chicago to play Division I baseball.

Today, Ryan runs what he considers the only institution in Evansville that truly compares to The Corner. As the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary this month at a sold-out gala, he can recall his first visit to the Boys & Girls Club here and how it jolted him back to the 1970s, bringing back memories of his childhood years on the South Side of Chicago and the haven he found in its midst.

As a teenager, the coaches and teachers who kept him on the straight and narrow at St. Laurence High School – an all-boys, private college-prep school in the Archdiocese of Chicago – left an indelible impression: “I decided I wanted to help kids – that I wanted to coach.” After college, he taught at an elementary school in the daytime and worked for the Parks District on the city’s East Side at night. Then he was hired at Rich Central High School, 40 minutes from the Loop in the south Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields. There he became dean of students, head baseball coach, and defensive coach for the football team. “It was a tough school. There were three police officers there daily because there were a lot of gang activities at the school. I’m proud to say we cleaned up that school,” says Ryan, who stayed on for 10 years. “It was tough leaving there.”

Seven years ago, a major career move by his wife, Chris, prompted him to relocate to Evansville, when she was named chief executive officer of The Women’s Hospital. It involved a cultural shift for the couple. In Chicago, she’d been introduced as “Coach Ryan’s wife.” In Evansville, he’s often introduced as “Chris Ryan’s husband.”

Ryan initially took a job as an elementary school principal in Owensboro, Ky., where he also coached baseball at Brescia University. In the spring of 2003, Kris Proctor, a Boys & Girls Club board member serving as interim director of the organization, was on an applicant search for a new permanent director when she thought of Ryan. He told her he was happy where he was, but agreed to talk. The first time Ryan crossed the threshold of the aging West Illinois Street location of the Boys & Girls Club – one of several aging facilities the Club operates out of – he said,“This is just like where I grew up.”
The comfort Ryan felt there was due in large part to the staff – many of whom started out as Club members when they were kids. Rodger Moore, 40, the health and physical education director, joined the Club when he was 13. From then, “I was at the club five days a week, for the entire time the Club was open,” Moore recalls. That continued through his teen years. At 18, he volunteered to coach basketball at the Club. That continued until five years ago, when he was hired on staff.

“As a kid, the Club gave me a refuge, a place I could come because home was not all that pleasant,” Moore recalls. “Who knows what path I would have taken if I hadn’t come here? My parents had four children; I was the only one who graduated from high school and college. Even after all the volunteer years I put in, I could never repay what this organization did for me.”

Moore echoes the sentiment of alumni of Boys & Girls Clubs across the United States, whose ranks include Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, actors Martin Sheen and Denzel Washington, and President Bill Clinton. In a poll taken by Louis Harris & Associates of the clubs’ alumni, 80 percent said the clubs’ staff helped them learn right from wrong. More than 50 percent said participating in a Boys & Girls Club “saved my life.”

So now you have your mental picture. But here are the hard facts. Most of the kids who belong to the Boys & Girls Club in Evansville belong to no other organization because they cannot afford it. The dues to belong are $10 a year – for everything. For that, they get long hours of focused attention and structured activities, in and out of the Club’s facilities. More than 2,400 kids belong to the club, spread among the West Illinois Street center, the branch at the Fulton Square Housing Development, and the after-school programs at Howard Roosa and Cedar Hall elementary schools run in partnership with Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation.

As fondly as he remembers Scottsdale Park of his youth, Ryan declares: “This is better than what I had.” The educational and tutoring programs provided by Evansville’s Boys & Girls Club weren’t available at The Corner. Personal computers weren’t part of the equation when Ryan was coming of age, but today one of the first things that Resource Development Director Jamie Morris will show you on a tour of the Club facilities is the tech center/library crammed into a second-floor room. “These kids don’t have computers at home,” Ryan says. But they have access at the Club. Tutors and mentors provide homework help during the school year, offering incentives to encourage members to do their homework first thing after school, as soon as they arrive at the Club.

When your eyes wander around Ron Ryan’s office in search of clues to what makes the man tick, the first place they stop is at a large cork bulletin board mounted on the wall and covered, every square inch of it, with photographs. They’re pictures sent to him by former students – guys he helped master hitting a curve ball or taught how to read a football offense. One is of Cole Lanham, a promising young junior quarterback of the Daviess County (Ky.) High School football team, who’d been a student of Ryan’s at Bishop Cotton several years back. Many are from Ryan’s Chicago days. One, pictured in a Navy uniform, is a young man whom Ryan calls an “ex-gang-banger.” Ryan helped him get out of gang life years ago, and now, he’s out of the service and working as a correctional officer in Chicago.

There’s e-mail in Ryan’s inbox from a kid he coached in Chicago who, as a high-school football player vowed he’d one day be a coach like Ryan. The e-mail informed Ryan that, as promised, his former charge now was the defensive coach at a high school in Calumet City, Ill. “Oh, by the way, Coach,” he wrote, “I’m stumped on how to tell my guys how to defend a double-wing offense.”

“It was a no-brainer to say yes,” says Ryan, shifting to the day he was offered the job he says he hopes to have until the day he retires. He talks about how important it is for him to be present in his open-door office, where typical urban kids with no pretense and hearts on their sleeves feel free to drop in and spill it all. The guy who’s been there adds: “When I have to act like an adult, I will. But I’d really much rather act like a kid.”

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