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Sneed exclusive: George Ryan talks about freedom, late wife

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Updated: July 3, 2013 9:51PM

Sneed exclusive . . .

Independence day . . .

It was quite a day.

Former Gov. George Ryan began the day Wednesday as a prisoner and ended it a free man.

“It’s my independence day,” said Ryan, “Even if it’s a day early.”

In the space of a few hours yesterday, Ryan signed prison release papers, got a haircut, was handed a $1 lottery ticket and took his first drink of alcohol in 78 months — sighing audibly when he sipped a glass of ice-cold Miller Genuine Draft beer. (Although a Bloody Mary was proffered, it was the beer George wanted.)

“Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last,” he said, borrowing a line from Martin Luther King Jr., during a joyous celebratory lunch at Gibson’s.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Ryan. “It was hard to believe all this was happening. Freedom is so precious.”

“I feel wonderful,” he added.

A relieved Ryan had just officially ended five months of house arrest at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, following a more than five-year stint in federal prison on political corruption charges.

“I’m not sure what’s ahead, nor what I am going to do, but you deal with the hand you are dealt and move on,” said Ryan, who heartily chowed down on beef barley soup, an entree of soft shell crab, and a hot fudge sundae washed down with strawberry shortcake — all after Rev. Ken Velo said grace.

Ryan lost 40 pounds while behind bars.

“The only thing missing is my wife,” said Ryan, who lost his high school sweetheart, Lura Lynn, to cancer while he was in prison.

“They told me I could either be with her at her funeral or when she was dying,” he said. “So I was permitted to watch her die.” He noted his wife’s birthday is Friday — the fifth of July — the day they would have celebrated his freedom together if she hadn’t died.

Toasts to Lura Lynn were raised frequently during the luncheon, which was hosted by close friends Joe and Denise Hannon and attended by Ryan’s son, Homer, his grandson, Michael Pignotti, Rev. Ken Velo,Hedy Ratner and her husband, Morton Kaplan. Sneed was also invited to attend.

During lunch, Ryan talked about writing a book and doing some public speaking, “perhaps lecturing about freedom.” Then he added: “I do have to earn a living.”

Luncheon conversation included the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial; the gubernatorial race between Bill Daley and Lisa Madigan; former Mayor Jane Byrne’s declining health; and the six news trucks parked in front of Ryan’s Kankakee home, awaiting his return.

Homer, Ryan’s only son — who owns an insurance company in Kankakee where his dad does part time work — also picked up a celebratory bag of Billy Goat hamburgers for the ride back to the family home in Kankakee, where Ryan now lives with his eldest grandson, Michael.

“The bag of burgers became kind of a must-do, good luck thing we would pick up every Tuesday for the past five-and-a-half months when Dad checked into the halfway house,” Homer said.

Bob Ciulla, operations manager at the hallway house, spoke briefly to Ryan this morning and said: “He was very appreciative of the staff here. He’s just very happy to put this behind him and move on with his life.” Ryan spent about 15 minutes there, Ciulla said.

“It’s been an amazing day,” said Ryan. “After we left the halfway house, I stopped at Walgreens to pick up a few things — and a few people, including a cab driver, spotted me and said welcome back. And it was nice to again visit my old barber, Ross DiGati, who moved his shop while I was in prison.”

At lunch’s end, Hannon presented Ryan with a brass whistle. “It’s wonderful having you home,” Hannon said. “If ever in need, just whistle.”

Then it was full sail to Kankakee and a Fourth of July celebration with the Ryan clan, which is now comprised of 29 family members. “I am so blessed,” said Ryan. “So blessed.”

Sneedlings . . .

Thursday’s birthdays: Geraldo Rivera, 70; Neil Simon, 86, and Bill Withers, 75.

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