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Paynesville Press - August 11, 2004

Disabled veteran retires from teaching

By Michael Jacobson

You know you have a positive attitude when the armored personnel carrier you are riding hits a mine, vaulting you 50 feet in the air and causing you to break your back when you return to earth, and you consider yourself lucky.

Bill Ryan That's what happened to Bill Ryan 37 years ago in Vietnam and he still considers himself lucky to have survived, despite the three back surgeries and all the pain that his fused spine has caused him since.

His service-related back injury led Ryan to a career in teaching. He taught agriculture for 26 years at Paynesville Area High School, but now he is retiring, also on account of his back.

Ryan recently learned that he qualified for 100 percent disability from the Veteran's Administration, prompting his retirement. Because of the special circumstances surrounding his retirement, it occurred during the summer, not at the end of the school year as most school retirements do.

On full disability, Ryan cannot make any other income, so he has to retire from teaching. And he also has to retire from the Roseville Township Board of Supervisors. Ryan has mixed emotion about retirement. While he will miss the students and his colleagues, he knows he physically cannot handle the job anymore. "It's been a long time coming, but the back and legs can't take it anymore," he said.

"Paynesville has the most fantastic kids in the world. It's going to be hard. When the first day of school rolls around, my thoughts are going to be with the kids. I can't put it into words how wonderful the kids here are. That's why I've stayed here for 26 years. That's why I'm going to retire and stay here," he explained.

"What I think about first when I think of Bill Ryan is his attitude," said high school principal John Janotta. "I have never met a person quite like Bill, who never complained about the pain that he has. He was always upbeat and maintained a great sense of humor."

"He is an inspiration to all staff, students, and parents who work with him or who are simply around him," continued Janotta. "He will do anything for anyone. We can all take a lesson from Bill. We will miss him greatly here at the high school." Ryan has "probably taught the kids more about life than they'll ever read out of books," superintendent Todd Burlingame told the school board last week after they approved Ryan's retirement.

Ryan has been considered 60 percent disabled by the Veteran's Administration since returning from Vietnam in 1967 with a broken back and splinters of bone still lodged in his spine.

He underwent surgery in Saigon to remove bone fragments pressing against his spine and a second surgery stateside to remove more and fuse his back. After that, he spent a year in a hospital and had to learn to walk again.

But when he got out, he had trouble finding work. Nobody wanted to hire someone with a broken back, he said. He worked for six years for the federal government in a munitions plant in the tabulation department, a job he hated, and then worked for nearly four years as a parts manager, a job he liked because it involves dealing with people.

But with his G.I. Bill getting close to expiring, he decided he'd try to go to college. With his wife Pat - who was engaged to him before he left for Vietnam and stood by him throughout his hospitalization, missing only one weekend visit in that entire year despite a 200-mile drive - as his tutor, he graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in ag and ag education.

He is still grateful to former superintendent Don Torbenson for hiring him in Paynesville. "After all the times that I'd been turned down because of my broken back... someone wanted me," he explained.

Ryan credits the Class of 1979, who supported him during his first year of teaching as a 32-year-old starting a new career during the 1978-79 school year for keeping him in teaching. "It was because of the way they treated me and supported me that I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to teaching and stay in Paynesville," he said. (The class asked Ryan to speak at their 25-year reunion on Saturday night.)

Having attended school himself taught by strict nuns in Illinois, Ryan always tried to teach with the motto that learning can be fun. "What you say to kids can be positive or negative, and they're going to carry that around for the rest of their lives," he explained.

Ryan still remembers a card on a plant his students gave him years ago the day after his high school friend committed suicide, causing him to feel blue. "When our best friend hurts," the card from his students said, "we hurt, too."

One thing he is not going to miss are graduation standards, which he laments for having no personality. Everyone learns, and teaches, differently because they have their own personality. And having kids trust you, having them confide in you, "means more than any book in the world," said Ryan.

Ryan taught agriculture classes, including an introdution to agriculture, ag shop, and animal science. Ag classes, though, have changed during his tenure, from a focus solely on farming to the greater ag industry, since fewer students are planning to farm while more are looking at other agribusiness careers. "Teaching ag classes now is not cows and plows," he said.

Another of his classes used to be called dairy science and used to cover just dairying, but now it is called animal science and covers all types of animals, including nonagriculture uses like pets and zoos.

Ag shop still teaches skills needed on the farm - welding, working with metal and wood, etc. - but the projects are not strictly for agriculture. And natural resources looks at agriculture and its effects on the environment but also examines other land use issues and prepares students for land stewardship beyond the farm.

He is pleased to have taught two generations of students in Paynes-ville, being able to recognize students by their resemblances to their parents who he might have had in class two decades ago. "You can look at their faces and say, 'That's gotta be a Leyendecker. That's gotta be a Lieser. That's gotta be a Magedanz," he said with a laugh.

Teaching two generations at PAHS is enough, though, he added with a bigger laugh.

After his most recent back surgery, his third, in 1999, causing him to miss most of the 1999-00 school year, he felt good for a year. But then the numbness in his feet returned and the pain grew. He can't lift. He can't swing a golf club anymore (though he still putts a little and likes riding along and being with friends). And he walks with a more pronounced stoop because that is the most comfortable position, he said.

He has been pursuing full disability for the past three years, knowing that his body was having a harder and harder time teaching. His social worker got his case reopened. And the deterioration of his physical condition, which includes being a diabetic after exposure to Agent Orange, led to his full disability. While it took until now to get full disability, Ryan is just grateful. "There ain't no country that I'd like to live in except the United States," he said. "I know the federal government works slow, but they've taken care of me."

Anybody with complaints, Ryan said, should visit either Camp Courage (which works with kids with disabilities) or a reception room at a Veteran's Administration hospital, where he estimates that he has made 25 trips in the past year.

"All good things come to an end," said Ryan of his teaching career. "This is a very happy ending. I just can't tell you how much the community of Paynesville and the school district have meant to me and my family."

Bill and Pat - who have three grown children - plan to continue to reside in Paynesville. Bill hopes to read, travel, and volunteer more in his retirement.

While he will miss teaching, he does plan to look at the alarm clock between 8:10 a.m. (when the bell rings at PAHS telling students to get to their first class) and 8:15 a.m. (when first hour starts) on opening day of school on Thursday, Sept. 2.

Then he plans to roll over and go back to sleep.



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