The end of an era became official Monday, Aug. 8.
More than three decades into a spectacular career as a coach and athletic administrator at St. Joseph’s University, Ellen Ryan’s last day on Hawk Hill included a small gathering of colleagues and the reception of numerous e-mail messages from friends and admirers. A bigger celebration will take place in September.
“I had been thinking about it for the last couple of years,” said Ryan, 70. “It gnawed at me that maybe this was the time to hand things over to someone else and get some young blood in here.”
An accomplished basketball and tennis player while growing up in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia and attending Merion Mercy Academy (Class of 1958), Ryan was a true pioneer in women’s athletics.
Ryan’s rein at St. Joseph’s began shortly after the school began accepting women as full-time students. She was named the school’s first women’s basketball coach in 1973-74; the Hawks finished their inaugural season with an impressive 9-2 record. She later became the school’s first tennis coach.
In the fall of 1975, SJU created a new position of coordinator of women’s athletics, and Ryan was hired. It was a difficult decision to work year round at SJU because for the past 16 years she had served as athletic director and four-sport coach at Sacred Heart Academy (now Country Day School of the Sacred Heart).
“I made a lot of friends there that are still friends today,” said Ryan, who currently serves on the school board at Country Day School. “I loved it there.”
Her admiration of and devotion to St. Joseph’s has withstood a dizzying influx of change and success. Under Ryan’s guidance as the eventual assistant and then associate athletic director, the Hawks amassed six Atlantic 10 conference titles and a whopping 2,091 victories. SJU currently offers 10 varsity sports for women.
And while she will be unable to fully enjoy the completion of the new varsity playing fields on school grounds (the field hockey team will begin playing home games sometime in September; the baseball and softball teams will do likewise in the spring), Ryan was very instrumental in the head-turning landscape that will undoubtedly benefit SJU’s athletes, coaches and spectators.
“I didn’t want to leave before I could see green fields,” Ryan said. “The school really needed that, and it deserved that.”
With pretty much everything in place for a smooth transition, Ryan feels at peace with her decision to step aside. Still, she admits the final leg of her journey has been emotional and difficult because of the countless relationships she has developed during the past 37 years.
A true believer that various signs often lead the way to discernment, Ryan began experiencing “little things here and there” and approached longtime athletic director Don DiJulia.
“I was like, ‘Don, I saw another sign,'” she said with a chuckle. “It’s not looking too good for me to stay here anymore.”
Reluctantly, but supportive of Ryan’s decision, DiJulia accepted her resignation in late June.
A legendary athletic director in his own right, DiJulia marveled at Ryan’s ability to juggle a demanding schedule without losing focus on what mattered most: family, friends, student athletes, the overall well being of St. Joseph’s University.
And more than all of that, Ryan’s faith.
“Everyone knows Ellen’s schedule,” DiJulia said. “Eight a.m. Mass at Presentation (B.V.M.) Church first, then she goes 24/7 in the collegiate sports world.
“She was our ‘first lady’ of women’s sports. Ellen has been an exemplary role model to countless young men and women. Her legacy will forever be as a witness to the Jesuit and Ignatian mission of ‘being a person with and for others.'”
Ryan said she has been a daily communicant for most of her life. It is rare when a morning goes by without her attending Mass. When she is unable to worship, she said she feels a bit odd.
“Everything isn’t quite right,” she said. “I don’t miss too often, but when I do, it gnaws at me that I could have found a way to get there. It’s a great way to start the day.”
Ryan said her entire family – which included nine children – attended daily Mass and the tradition became a staple in her life. Among the benefits, she said, is seeing the same people each morning.
“It’s almost like they have their own pew,” she laughed. “Everyone pretty much sits in the same place.”
Retirement or not, there will always be a place for Ellen Ryan at St. Joseph’s University.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.