I once congratulated Dr. Jack Ryan on a fantastic Sing-A-Rama. It was a rookie mistake. I was a first-year faculty member — unfamiliar with all things Searcy — and my sister had gone to David Lipscomb University, our friendly rival in Nashville. She had directed a club show back in the 80s in Sing-A-Rama, Lipscomb’s version of Spring Sing. I had just gotten the two mixed up.
Anyway, I soon realized the gravity of my faux pas. Dr. Ryan gazed down at me with a look of pity. He held one hand out in front of his waist, and in that famously booming voice, he announced, “Here is Sing-A-Rama.” And he raised the other hand above his head and said, slightly louder, “And here is Spring Sing.” Then he grinned, as if to say all was forgiven.
Spring Sing was Jack’s baby. In the 44 years he taught speech at Harding, he spent 34 of them directing and producing the annual music extravaganza, which is now in the capable hands of Steve and Dottie Frye. The John H. Ryan trophy given to the winning show is named after him. With Dr. Ryan’s passing last week at the age of 86, Harding has lost one of its legends.
He had a wonderful sense of humor and relished jokes — the cornier, the better. He used to live near his former colleague Bob Helsten, who was also famous for his wit. They had many lively exchanges over the years, and Jack especially loved to tell one anecdote. He was once walking past Dr. Helsten’s house, pushing his children in a buggy. Bob had two vehicles parked in the driveway, with all eight doors open and the vacuuming going.
Jack yelled out, “Hey, Bob, are you airing your cars?” Without missing a beat, Bob answered, “Yes! Are you carting your heirs?”
Jack never minded being one-upped by something truly clever. However, if you tried to top him with something awful, he always had the same response. Many times he told me a bad joke, which I tried to follow with a worse one. Once I asked him if he had heard about the upholsterer who got injured on the job. “Don’t worry,” I said. “He’s completely recovered.”
Dr. Ryan sent me to my room.
Known as the “Voice of Harding,” Jack Ryan had that authoritative, radio-announcer’s projection when he spoke. For years, the intermission announcements during Spring Sing were all in Jack’s voice. One year, he did a parody of himself, making each statement more ridiculous than the next. I remember laughing when he said the bathrooms were located in the lobby, in the McInteer building, in the Student Center, at Kroger, at Searcy Discount Tire and at Wendy’s.
On a more serious note, it was a pleasure to hear Dr. Ryan read scripture out loud. A true perfectionist and a deeply reverent man, he felt it a sacred duty to read the Bible in public and always did so with a clarity and conviction that made the words breathe anew. He also loved the piano and often “played for his supper” at the Sunday buffet on campus. Once a week, he would ask everyone in the room to stand up and sing along as he pounded out the national anthem. As a veteran of the Navy, he revered his country. Jack was also passionate about children and championed homes that served foster families and kids.
It’s one of the unfortunate facts of university life that, five years after you retire, you are just a name to most current and future students. But thank goodness for Harding alumni, who all have their own stories of Jack’s masterful teaching and charming wit.
Before I go, I need to say something about Miss Polly, who also died recently at age 74. When my parents visited campus a few years after I started working here, I took them on a tour. As we got to the cafeteria, I introduced them to Polly Smith, who swiped ID cards at the door for over 25 years. “Don’t tell Dr. Burks,” I said, “but this lady really runs the university.” She just laughed, but for several generations of students, Miss Polly was the friendly face who greeted them day after day. Her time at the university totaled 40 years. The fondness many of you feel for Mrs. Norma is just what alumni felt for her.
Both of these icons spent four decades making Harding a better place. So, the next time you go to the cafeteria, swipe in a friend in honor of Miss Polly. And when you take to the stage in Spring Sing next week, put a little extra pizzazz in your choreography for Jack.