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Obituary: Matthew J. Ryan / Long-serving Pa. House speaker

Monday, March 31, 2003

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pennsylvania House Speaker Matthew J. Ryan, whose 40 years in the Legislature included more than 30 years in leadership positions, died Saturday night from complications related to stomach cancer. He was 70.

Mr. Ryan, a Republican who represented Delaware County, died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, surrounded by his wife, Delaware Common Pleas Judge Patricia H. Jenkins, and his five children, according to Roger Nick, Mr. Ryan's chief of staff.

The stomach cancer had been diagnosed last year. On Feb. 14, Mr. Ryan was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and had been fighting that illness since then.

"I think everybody considers him Pennsylvania's elder statesman," Nick said yesterday. "He was just a brilliant man, respected by both sides of the aisle."

Mr. Ryan was elected to his first house term in 1962. He served as majority leader for the 1979-80 session, and was first elected speaker in 1981. From 1983 to 1994, he was minority leader. He was elected speaker for his second two-year term in 1995 and for each successive two-year term since. In 1999, the Capitol Annex was renamed the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building, a rare honor for a living legislator.

Mr. Ryan was Pennsylvania's third-longest-serving speaker, and, in the 319-year history of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, only one member has been in the House longer.

Mr. Ryan was particularly interested in education issues and was a major supporter of the University of Pennsylvania veterinary schools, according to House parliamentarian Clancy Myer. He was also active in the budget process.

Gov. Ed Rendell said, "Matt Ryan's 40 years of service to the citizens of this commonwealth are a testament to his life. Over these decades, he served with a great deal of dignity and respect for others.

"He demonstrated that you could provide strong and effective leadership without resorting to destructive partisanship. Having worked with Matt for many years, I can attest he was a tireless fighter" for the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Rendell said Mr. Ryan's death "will leave a great void in both the Legislature and the lives of those who knew him."

Mr. Ryan graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia and earned a business degree from Villanova University in 1954 and a law degree from Villanova in 1959.

He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956, which is where he first met Jim Roddey, who now is Allegheny County's chief executive.

"We went through officers training together," said Roddey, a Republican.

"He was a real leader," Roddey said. "He didn't seek the limelight. He led behind the scenes. He extracted an enormous amount of power and used it in a wonderful way. He was always respected -- a real gentleman, very polite, from the old school. He respected everyone's views, but with all his politeness and gentility, he was very determined and strong."

House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, R-Philadelphia, said, "Matt Ryan has been more than just a colleague to me. He was a close friend and a true mentor.

"An American patriot, a great Pennsylvanian and devoted family man, Matt will be missed by many more than those of us in the state House. His service went beyond his 168th Legislative District, helping better the lives of this state's 12 million residents," Perzel said.

Bill Green, a local Republican political consultant, said, "Matt Ryan was a gentleman. I never saw anybody manage the house with such grace and equanimity.

"It took a lot of genuine diplomacy to make certain the place ran, and he did it with such grace and with love. Matt had thousands of friends, but I don't think you can find an antagonist. When the votes were counted, he moved on" without any hard feelings.

"I can't find enough good words," Green said. "He never failed to return a call. ... He was always there with a card or a note" when someone was ill. "Though he had an enormous amount of power, he used it in a wonderful way."

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, call Mr. Ryan "a man of principle, strength and compassion. Respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he understood the true spirit of debate and was a calming force" in the state House.

House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese, a Democrat who represents Greene, Fayette and Washington counties, said Mr. Ryan was "a man of sanguine temperament and pluck. He radiated an exuberant and abiding passion for the political process in general, and for our House chamber in particular.

"Matt was utterly unparalleled as a presiding officer when it came to humor, equanimity and fraternity, notwithstanding our 27 years of partisan pugilism," DeWeese said.

"That we were both former United States Marine Corps lieutenants provided a special bond that endured," DeWeese said. "Semper fidelis, Matthew Ryan."

Services are scheduled for Thursday, with a Mass to be celebrated at noon at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Media, Delaware County. Viewing is scheduled for three hours before the Mass and also from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.

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