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Thomas P. Ryan Jr.


Thomas P. Ryan Jr.

Tom Ryan was a complicated man, and a complicated mayor.

                  Ryan, who died last Friday, served as Rochester's mayor from 1974 to 1993, and right to the end, he was shy: hated public speaking, didn't like going to neighborhood meetings. "He was not one who reveled in the ceremonies of the office," says his former deputy mayor, Chris Lindley.

                  He mumbled, and grumbled, and conversations with him were dominated by long, long pauses. Interviewing him was often a challenge. He was not terribly quotable --- was not, says Lindley, "good copy." But, says Lindley, "I think with one or two exceptions, the reporters who covered him came to adore the guy."

                  Reporters weren't the only ones faced with what former city official Tom Argust calls Ryan's "indirect Irish communication."

                  "One of the challenges in working with him was to try to be clear about what he meant," says Argust, who was Ryan's Commissioner of Parks and Recreation and then Commissioner of Community Development.

                  And yet he left an exceptional record. And he was admired, often revered, by those who worked with him. The crowd at his memorial service on Monday included not only current political leaders but also former City Councilmembers, former School Board members, and City Hall staff members, some of whom were wearing election buttons from Ryan's last campaign.

                  Ryan was also extremely popular with voters. "He had a different way of communicating," says Lindley, "but the public liked it. The public trusted him and liked him."

                  The aggravations of the job obviously got to him. But when Michael Miller, as Democratic Party chair, suggested that Ryan might want to get out of City Hall and take a City Court judgeship (10 years guaranteed tenure), Ryan declined. He said, Miller related at the mass on Monday, "I already have the only job I'll ever want."

                  His shyness and few words didn't mask his intelligence. He was intensely interested in public policy, reading voraciously --- nonfiction books, government reports, newspapers. He watched C-Span, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, fretting about violence and poverty and looking for ways to attack them.

                  And he did not suffer fools gladly. He had a temper, and reporters who displeased him heard about it promptly. A favorite phrase, Chris Lindley recalls: "There's nothing so dangerous as dealing with a man who doesn't know anything."

                  Ryan was, in summary, an unusual kind of leader. But a leader he surely was. And he molded an administration that gave Rochester stability and strength.

                  He hired creative people, and he was willing to take risks, whether it was investing millions of dollars in High Falls or hanging on through the embarrassment of the uncompleted Hyatt Hotel.

                  As suburban sprawl sucked residents out of the city, he and his administration fought back, with investments in street and sidewalk repairs, neighborhood beautification programs, loans and grants for home repairs, and downtown development efforts.

                  He was an ardent Democrat, and no softie when it came to politics, but he worked with Republican County Executive Lou Morin to create an innovative tax-sharing plan that both eased city financial problems and forged an example of metropolitan cooperation.

                  And it did more than that. It put the county and the suburbs on record as recognizing that the city is not just one municipality among many; it is the core of the region, offering services and hosting tax-exempt institutions that serve the county and the region as a whole.

                  Ryan also left Rochester with a tradition of honest government. He had, says Chris Lindley, "a rock-bottom sense of decency and fairness and honesty." And his personal ethics set the tone in City Hall.

                  "He provided a context," says Tom Argust, "an atmosphere in which people made the decisions that were best for the city."

                  "It's not that you have to be out front all the time," says Argust, "but you create a culture that values integrity, that values trust, that values honesty, that values a high degree of professionalism and expectation in public service, an expectation that public service is not something to be taken lightly, that it is a mission in life. He created that expectation by example."

                  Ryan's is a legacy he --- and his public --- could be proud of. The tragedy is that he still had so much to give when he lost his fight with cancer.