Who was Dan Ryan?

November 27, 2012

You know Eisenhower and Kennedy. You might have heard of Stevenson. But who was Dan Ryan?

Glad you asked. This is who Dan Ryan was. . .

He was born Daniel Ryan Jr. in 1894. Daniel Ryan Sr. was a Democrat office-holder who followed the Chicago political tradition of naming his son after himself. The elder Ryan eventually became President of the Cook County Board. Dan Ryan Woods, at 87th Street and Western Avenue, is named after him.

Our Dan Ryan grew up on the South Side. He served in the Navy during World War I, then earned a law degree from Chicago-Kent. When Dan Ryan Sr. died in 1923, Democrat leaders followed another local tradition. They appointed his son to the vacancy on the County Board.

After finishing out his father’s term, Young Dan ran the family insurance business for a while. In 1930 he became a candidate for the County Board in his own right, and was elected. He stayed on the Board for the rest of his life. 

Dan Ryan was a Democrat Machine politician, with all that implies. He formed alliances with various factions and gradually built up his power base. As early as 1933, when Anton Cermak was killed, Ryan was in the running to be slated as Mayor of Chicago, but was passed over. His fondest ambition was to become Governor of Illinois. He never made that office, either.

“He lacked the ruthless ambition to reach the top,” one writer said. “He sat in on all the inner-circle meetings, but usually more as a spectator than a manipulator.” And yet, he got things done. Ryan was a big, bluff, hearty man who had few enemies. Republicans were still a factor in local politics, and he got along famously with them.

In 1954 he matched his father by being elected County Board President. County government was politically-infested then–just as it had been in the past, just as it is today. But Ryan kept things in line. During his tenure, there were no major scandals.

Sometimes he rose above politics. When University of Illinois trustees wanted to take over a big chunk of the forest preserve, Ryan stopped them cold. At another Board meeting, a scientist requested money to buy cages for research dogs. Ryan was a dog lover. His response was: “The only use we could make of such cages is to put research scientists in them.”

Ryan suffered from asthma all his life. In the spring of 1961, he showed up at a political meeting breathing heavily. Everyone noticed. “You fellows are looking at me like I’m going to die,” he snapped. “Well, I’ll tell you something–I’ll be around to be a candidate at the next election.”

That was a Thursday. On Friday the asthma was worse, and Ryan went home to rest. On Saturday morning he had a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital and died a few hours later. He was 66.

Ryan’s death was front page news in all four Chicago papers. The politicians issued the usual flowery statements of regret, but most of them seemed genuinely grieved by his passing. At the funeral, the most notable mourner was TV star Danny Thomas. Ryan had been an early supporter of Thomas’s favorite charity, and they had become personal friends.

A bit later, someone recalled that Ryan had proposed using county funds to construct a “superhighway” back in 1939. Now that he was gone, what better memorial than to name the new South Expressway after him? So it was done.

And that’s who Dan Ryan was.