ALTON - There are a few things you should know about Bob Ryan. First, he is an Alton native and trusted lawyer with an office in the Riverbender building. Second, a piece of the Berlin Wall sits on his desk as a nod to his time in Germany during World War II. Third, he will turn 100 on Saturday, Sept. 23, and, in a move both exciting and uncharacteristic, he might leave work a little early today as a treat.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Ryan said, a sentiment that rings as true today as when he first thought it several years ago at the end of the war.
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For someone who was so young when World War II began, he lived a lifetime before it ended. Ryan graduated from Marquette Catholic High School and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps a year after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He is candid about his experiences during World War II, including the year he spent in a Nazi prison camp as a prisoner of war.
In May 1944, Ryan’s B17 4-Engine Bomber was hit head-on by an enemy air attack during his sixth mission. As the navigator, Ryan was the first to parachute out of the plane. He watched a German soldier train a rifle on him the entire way down.
He was 19 years old and deep in Germany, 200 miles away from Switzerland, Sweden and occupied France. As per the terms of the Geneva Convention, he provided only his name, rank and serial number to the German soldiers at the interrogation center. He ended up at Stalag Luft III B, a Nazi camp 80 miles southeast of Berlin.
During the year he spent moving between prison camps, Ryan remembers the hunger, his questions about how he would get back to Illinois, and his certainty that he would be imprisoned for at least the next ten years. On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — German soldiers told the prisoners that the Allies had invaded Normandy and were slaughtered.
Stalag Luft III B was evacuated in January 1945, at midnight in a heavy snowstorm, when the Russian army approached. Ryan walked 60 miles over eight days and then was loaded into a boxcar to be delivered near Munich.
General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated Ryan’s camp on April 29, 1945. Hope, he said, had kept him alive.
“We could hear the American Army approaching for maybe a week ahead of time,” he remembered. “And then the Nazi flag comes down and the American flag goes up.”
It was several months before Ryan made it back to the U.S. When he returned home, he finished his degree at St. Louis University and began practicing law in 1953. He is still working today, simply because he loves it so much.
What am I going to do, watch TV?” he laughed. “Law is a fascinating subject, number one. Number two, it’s a good education, whether you practice law or not. And frankly, the nation is built on law.”
And he enjoys coming into his office, where he works closely with secretary Dorothy and keeps chocolates hidden in his desk. His loved ones regularly stop by, including longtime client and friend Barbara Burk, who brought him a birthday cake topped with trick candles on Wednesday afternoon. She explained that she delivers a chocolate cake from Duke’s Bakery every year, a tradition her mom began.
“I’m not breaking something my mother and I started,” she shrugged, but finally admitted, “I’m used to dealing with a lot of [dishonest] people. He’s real.”
This signature sincerity has followed Ryan throughout his life. He compares his story to Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way.” You can see all 100 years in Ryan’s office, including the marks of the people who have loved him along the way.
For his birthday, Dorothy presented him with a plastic skeleton of a dog, a Halloween decoration that, she joked, will fit right in. A model of the B17 4-Engine Bomber is on a shelf next to his framed degree. That piece of the Berlin Wall — a gift from Burk — is ever-present, though the leather decanter she gave him last year is waiting at home for this weekend’s celebration.
The office also sports photos of Ryan’s wife, children and grandchildren, and many of these family members are flying in from across the country this weekend for a birthday party, or as Ryan calls it, “a little gathering of nieces, nephews, in-laws and outlaws.”
So, at 100 years old, what’s the secret to a good life?
“That’s got to stay a secret,” Ryan laughed. “The Good Lord and good genes. That’s about it. It’s really nothing I did. I’m amazed, constantly.”
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