HUDSON–A memorial service is Saturday for East Taghkanic resident Michael Ryan, writer, filmmaker, and playwright, who died July 19 at New York University Hospital due to complications from a hip injury after a long battle with liver disease. He was 58.
A Boston native who studied at Boston College High School and majored in classics at Harvard, where he was an editor of the Harvard Crimson and president of the Signet Society, Mr. Ryan became a successful journalist and editor who also made an acclaimed documentary film, Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols, which ran on HBO in 1995.
After college Mr. Ryan had freelance articles published in Newsweek (My Turn), Town and Country, and the Boston Herald Magazine as he worked as a reporter at The Boston Phoenix, where he covered the school busing crisis, Boston Magazine where his profile on Boston Mayor Kevin White won a Penny-Missouri Magazine Award, and TV Guide, for which he interviewed President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office. He returned to Boston to write a column for the Boston Herald and later became an editor at Boston Magazine before returning to New York City to work as an editor of the Up Front (news) section of People Magazine.
At People Mr. Ryan handled the coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and through the magazine’s L.A. correspondents uncovered the fact that John Belushi had been with his drug dealer on the night of his death. In 1984 he traveled to Normandy with World War II Medal of Honor veterans. After a brief stint as an editor at the company’s magazine development department, Mr. Ryan left to work freelance for Parade Magazine, Life Magazine, Smithsonian, the Boston Globe and other publications.
During this period, Mr. Ryan traveled the world covering breaking news in far flung places from Eastern Europe to Russia, Africa, Asia, South Africa, Canada, El Salvador, Newfoundland and the Middle East. He went to Rumania and Germany, where increasing numbers of refugees were escaping from Russian bloc countries prior to the break-up of the Berlin Wall, and to Russia where he covered the coup in 1991. In Antarctica he talked with research scientists, visited the South Pole and covered a dramatic rescue on the ice. He visited the Peace Corps in West Africa and refugee camps in Cambodia, and saw military action in Granada, where he shared a crowded transport in the back of a garbage truck with Charlene Hunter Gault and Philip Jones Griffiths. He visited Jordan and Iraq with Dan Rather and, at the close of the first Gulf War, scored the first interview and attended the Iraqi surrender ceremony with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. The article ran as a rare double cover in Life Magazine.
He met and wrote stories about a host of cultural icons and political luminaries, including Bill Cosby, Hugh Heffner, Claus Von Bulow, Donald Trump (who entertained him at dinner at his Atlantic City Casino with Michael Jackson), Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, Henry Heimlich, Carl Sagan and others. His work as a contributing editor for Parade magazine allowed him to spotlight the innovative and altruistic contributions of individual scientists, engineers, doctors, designers, people like Mohammed Yunnis, who created micro-lending and founded the Grameen Bank in Bangledash, and Dr. Ben Carson, famous for his heroic surgeries to separate Siamese twins.
Much of his work focused on ordinary people who did extraordinary things, people like the octogenarian Harlem doctor who kept his office open to serve a community in need despite rising crime, or the Idaho community that united to stand up against hate crimes. He won an Easter Seal Award for a story on Camphill Village in Columbia County, and another for a report on an Adirondack guide, Paul Gibaldi, who fought disability from a head injury to achieve his dream.
In 1991 Mr. Ryan began work on the documentary film Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols, which told the story of a young man who, when he contracted AIDS in his senior year in high school, used his Eagle Scout project to go public with the information to educate his community and the world about the disease and how to prevent its spread. Mr. Ryan received a Daytime Emmy nomination for directing and producing the film, which he made with his wife, Debora Gilbert, and producer director Ellen Stokes. The film received a Cable Ace Award, among others.
He also wrote several plays, including The Empire Builder, which won the first Hudson River Classics Award from the Hudson based group by the same name, and M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) both of which were produced by the group in Hudson. He wrote two books, Climbing, a gently humorous social satire, and, with Jon Oliver, Lesson One: The ABC’s of Life, about a groundbreaking educational program.
Mr. Ryan, a natural story-teller, brought a humane sensibility tempered by sound journalistic judgment to his projects. His linguistic abilities allowed him to communicate directly with a range of subjects, and he had the knack, prized in foreign correspondents, of being able to hit the ground running and find and produce a story in record time.
In recent years, Mr. Ryan had found a vocation in the Episcopal Church, was involved in outreach work with the homeless and was planning on attending seminary in the fall.
He is survived by two brothers, James (Karin) of Rockville Center, Long Island and Robert (Maryanna) of Scituate, Mass., and seven nieces and nephews.
Two memorial services are planned, one in Hudson at Christ Church Episcopal August 15 at 11 a.m., and one in New York City (details to be announced). Donations in Mr. Ryan’s memory may be sent to the Mary Lea Johnson Richards Research Institute, 232 East 30th Street, New York, NY 10016.