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Loss of Bill Ryan leaves big void in Golden Bear land

POSTED January 25, 2014
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

While he may not be the Athletic Director at Thomaston High School anymore, Billy Ryan will always have a special place in his heart for the Golden Bears. Picture by Mic Nicosia


            Like many, Monday is my least favorite day of the week. This one (Jan. 27) will be longer and more difficult than most.  Somewhere around 2:10 Bill Ryan will walk out of Thomaston High School and I don’t know if he will be back.

            Ryan and I have known each other since high school. Our mothers worked together. Our teaching careers have paralleled one another and we have taught together, about 30 feet from one another for the last 10 years or so.

            We have eaten lunch together, discussing school and sports over those fine school lunch chicken patties and hamburger discs that could knock you out in a heartbeat and take you out permanently if you eat too many of them. We have laughed and argued, a writer’s perspective and a coach’s perspective not always the same.

            We have been golf partners (he‘s much better and will gladly tell you that) and played some basketball together (he’s much better shooter, maybe I had a little more game).  He is the first teacher I see in the morning and I bring him the paper.

            We are locals who came back to teach in our hometown and have done a lot of it together. Yeah, Monday isn’t going to be so great. I will go on, my universe still in sync, his world a little bit upside down, the future days a lot more unsure.

            Thomaston High takes a big hit Monday. The school will move on as schools always do, but something will be missing or more accurately someone and that is Bill Ryan. The numbers will get added up, the schedules done, the busses will come. But much of the soul will be gone.

            Ryan’s 21-year stint as Athletic Director that covers two different periods (1987-99 and 2004 – present) ends Monday. He will not return to that position. Thomaston High loses the only golf coach its program has ever had and a fine volunteer girls basketball coach at least for the rest of this school year and maybe for good.

            Thomaston loses a bit of its athletic identity not to mention a teacher of 29 years and you struggle with it. He struggles with it.

            At 54 this is not a natural progression of Ryan’s career. This wasn’t planned on. It is being dealt with but it wasn’t on agenda.

            Ryan suffered a stroke on Sept. 1 that threw a major curve ball into the plans. He woke up, didn’t feel right, but went back to sleep figuring he would feel better in the morning. Instead he found out had a stroke.

            Fortunately there are few physical effects but Ryan is dealing with short term memory loss. And despite the fact that has been back at work, teaching and doing the Athletic Director duties since late September, it became apparent to him that he needed time for his body to repair itself.

            So he will take the second half of the year off with the hope of returning in September or sometime next year.

            “My goal is to come back but in order to be able to do that I need to be able to think on my feet like I used to,” said Ryan. “Physically, I’m good. The problem is my short term memory and anything new I have to spend a lot of time on.”

            So Ryan moves on with hopes of coming back but in the meantime, it is a whole new world out there. Ryan is a big part of Thomaston High life and THS life  is a gargantuan part of his life and that has been taken away for now.

            Tuesday morning roles around and there is no teaching, no A.D. duties, no coaching with girls basketball team.  It is a different world about to unfold.

            “I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” said Ryan. ‘I don’t know what I feel now. I will go to a basketball game Tuesday night and physical therapy Friday, other than that I have nothing planned. Well, I will go to breakfast with Sleeper (Gene McMahon, father of THs girls basketball coach Bob McMahon.”

             Every community can offer up its diehards, those that live and die with their school and teams. Few communities can offer up a Bill Ryan. Nobody bleeds Thomaston High brown and gold like Ryan. It has been a lifelong love affair that has fed him a good portion of his life’s blood.

            He has been part of it, created part of it, nurtured part of it. Ryan was born in Thomaston. He went to school there and played basketball in the mid-1970s. He came back to teach in the town and for 29 years has hit all levels – elementary, middle school and high school.

            But there has been no passion like the athletic passion and he has given much. The aforementioned Athletic Director duties, THS girls varsity basketball coach for a decade and before that JV coach. Creator and only coach for the golf team.

            Ryan has been involved on all levels and reveled in it. It is very accurate to say to he has become the main face of Thomaston High sports. He has a wardrobe dominated by THS apparel, the ever present `T’ in the house on almost a daily basis.

            A history teacher, the text book past has had to share time with the THS athletic past and present in his room. His bulletin boards this year were decorated in brown and gold with a big `THS’ splashed across each one. One wall was a tribute to the THS girls basketball team’s BL title and appearance in the Class S championship game at Mohegan Sun last season, laminated newspaper articles and photos greeting you as you entered the room.

            You have always known where Ryan’s heart is as have the THS athletes. Written on his board in the corner of his room Friday was a short note with a big mention, “We love you Mr. Ryan.”

            The student-athletes have been his lifeblood.

            “I think it is probably harder for me to walk away from the athletic aspect than the academic,’ said Ryan. “I will miss the kids and everthing about them. I’ve done this (A.D. job) for 21 years because of them. They are phenomenal. Tell them I’ll be at the games.”

            Few know Ryan better than McMahon. A close family friend, when Ryan became girls varsity coach McMahon was his JV coach. When Ryan stepped down, two years later he came back as a volunteer coach with McMahon. Ryan even coach McMahon in middle school.

            McMahon knows what is going on, he gets it all.

            “We have to figure out a way he’s around,” said McMahon. “The kids, coaches want him there. It’s been said he’s the face of Thomaston High athletics and he should be that until decides not to be. He needs to be involved in high school and the THS athletes will be behind him.”

            I sat down with Ryan after school Friday. We talked for about 15 minutes. He laughed and kept rubbing in the idea that he doesn’t have to come back after Monday. Underneath it, I felt the struggle. So much of his life here, the idea that at least some of it he can’t get back and who knows about the rest.

            I know my school life is lessening with his absence.  He was there and I could feel an emptiness that will ensue.

            You root for Bill Ryan. He will go for rehabilitative therapy and may he get healthy and come back and maybe pick up some of his coaching duties. You desperately want it all to work. In many ways he and THS have become one. 

            I want there to be a positive bend when he walks out of the building Monday. I will buy him lunch and wish him well. I know he will be a visitor to basketball games.  But, there is a melancholy here.

            You can’t bottle `the same’ forever. And while it can and hopefully will continue to be good. It won’t be the same.

             I don’t know, maybe it will be better. What I do know is that THS is taking a big hit. A particularly lousy Monday.   Ryan, knows however, there will always be a spot for him in the world of brown and gold. It can be no other way.

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