Homebuilder John V. Ryan, founded Gaelic Football club, dies at 78
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @suntimesobits May 3, 2013 9:51AM
John Ryan, a Chicago area homebuilder, died March 28 at 78. | provided photo
Updated: June 4, 2013 6:16AM
John V. Ryan, who became a successful home builder in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, spotted his first business opportunity at 13 as he drove his six cattle to a fair in County Galway, Ireland.
When he saw another farmer with six brawnier cattle heading the same way, he had an idea.
“He stopped the man, and he negotiated to buy six more cattle,” said his daughter, Annette Bannon. “My dad saw his cattle were much bigger and stronger and would make his cattle look good.”
He wound up selling all 12 for a tidy sum.
“That was the beginning of my dad as an entrepreneur and dealmaker,” she said.
Mr. Ryan knew there were opportunities in America for a go-getter. His mother had lived in the United States when she was a girl, and he thought she carried herself differently than the other women in his hometown of Murvey, near Roundstone, County Galway. A touch of the “Yank” had rubbed off.
“Mammy always had the brand new pocketbook and a fresh hat for Poppy,” his father, he would tell his kids.
He sold cattle to pay for his plane ticket.
He wound up building more than 2,000 homes in Evergreen Park, Homer Glen and Palos Hills. All the models were named for Irish castles: the Ashford; the Kylemore; the Lismore; the Kildare. In one of his subdivisions, he named a street for a sister, Rosarie, who died of cancer.
Mr. Ryan died March 28 at his Evergreen Park home. He was 78.
Some say he had the Irish gift of gab, a legacy of his family running a grocery and bakery attached to their cottage. He drove around Murvey in an old blue truck nicknamed “The Bluebird,” delivering milk, a “punta tea” and more. He also came calling as a traveling butcher who would kill a sheep or pig for a farmer and carve it up for meat.
“If I had stayed in Roundstone, I would have been mayor of the town,’’ he used to say.
He left for American in 1957 with one suitcase at 23.
His first job was as a butcher at High-Low Foods at 79th and Ashland, a now-shuttered grocery chain owned by an Irish-American family, the Roneys, who gave many people of Irish extraction their first job. Gov. Patrick Quinn is an alum.
Mr. Ryan was an expert on cuts of meat all his life.
“I would call him, ‘Should I get a rump roast or an eye of round?’ ’’ his daughter said.
Even when he was still working as a butcher, he started buying up lots for homes.
He also worked nights at the old Regency ballroom. There he met his wife, Bridie Breen. They married in 1962.
“My mom just always said he was going to give her a good life,” their daughter said. “She said she never had a worry.”
He met Benny Smith, an Irishman from County Cavan, and they started to build homes together. Smith, a carpenter, was the construction expert. Mr. Ryan was the salesman. They worked together for 40 years, until Smith retired.
In 1976, Mr. Ryan helped found the Galway Fellowship Club, a social and philanthropic organization. He also was a supporter of Chicago’s Wolfe Tones Gaelic Football club, named for a fiery leader of Ireland’s independence movement.
After weekends playing the game — a boisterous, shoulder-tackling, hands-allowed cross between soccer and rugby — he spent 19 years as chairman of the Wolfe Tones. Since its 1957 founding, the club has won more American League championships — 13 — than any other Irish football club in North America, said John Devitt, another former chairman.
Mr. Ryan kept the sport vital by organizing matches in Chicago with other local Irish football clubs. The winners played teams in Boston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Toronto. In the summer, the Wolfe Tones occasionally went up against visiting teams from Ireland.
“He inspired people with his devotion to the Wolfe Tones and Gaelic football,” Devitt said.
“He helped a lot of people get their start here,” he said. “Many people who came to the United States in the ’60s and ’70s owe their start in construction to Johnny Ryan and his partner Benny Smith.”
In later years, Mr. Ryan got involved in harness racing. His ponies ran at Maywood Park and Hawthorne Race Course. He named a Homer Glen street “Sulky Drive” for the cart used in the sport.
He often encouraged his children to lift themselves up with schooling. “Education, they can’t take it away from you,” he told them.
Other survivors include three more daughters, Maureen Nolan, Eileen Monago and Breda Rugai; a son, John; sisters Anna, Bridgie and Evelyn; a brother, Kevin, and 11 grandchildren.
Services have been held.