Volunteer J.D. Ryan picked half a pail of strawberries at the Hunger Coalition’s Hope Garden in Hailey last Thursday before taking a break to talk about life.
The Hope Garden was planted a few years ago on land that once supported the Blaine County Jail. Today, the land provides food for those who plant and weed the immaculate rows of berries, squash, tomatoes, greens and other produce. One of those is Ryan.
“I believe if you get something, you should give back,” said Ryan. “I take every chance to work in the dirt. Plants and animals remind you what is real in life.”
Ryan came to the Wood River Valley for the first time in 2000. He returned recently after three years of caretaking and grounds-keeping jobs he found in “The Caretaker Gazette,” working in Arizona, California and Colorado. The work included tending avocado and orange groves.
Born in 1938, Ryan has worked as a waiter, ranch hand, bartender, cab driver, painter, apprentice carpenter, actor and drama teacher. He said of his life’s journey that he “prepared for the seminary, spent time in the penitentiary and served in the military,” but he said he doesn’t really know where he’s from or who his parents were.
“I was what was called a ‘foundling’ back in another time,” said Ryan, who speaks deliberately and with obvious erudition. He is rereading “East of Eden” and working his way through Peter Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country” trilogy.
Ryan was raised in St. Louis by alcoholic foster parents, people who he said had no business having a child.
“I have scars from them. Things happened that have taken me 60 years to get over,” he said. “All of us have sorrows, ambitions and regrets. But if you lose hope, you are done. You can’t live unless you learn to forgive.”
Ryan said he became a “perpetual runaway” as a child. At age 11 he departed for Mississippi where he picked cotton with sharecroppers. On another occasion he ran only six blocks away, staying with an unwitting family that knew nothing about him. From there he spied on his foster parents and saw that they just carried on as though nothing had happened.
“It was like they had lost a cat,” he said.
Ryan grew accustomed to assuming new identities, sleeping in abandoned cars and quickly making friends.
“It was a different time, when a kid could hitch-hike. In Branson, Mo., I found a family that was camping and had some food. I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Bob. My parents are staying at the cabin over there.’”
When he was 14, Ryan, who was raised listening to Pat Boone, heard rock ’n’ roller Chuck Berry for the first time, and lit out for Chicago. At 15, while preparing to be a priest at Kenwick Seminary in St. Louis, he met a Capuchin monk who played basketball with him and advised him to seek salvation everywhere and all of the time.
“He was my Dalai Lama,” said Ryan.
At 17 he refused to submit to more physical abuse, and left home for good. He was arrested that year for robbery and assault. He spent the next four and a half years in the Huntsville, Texas, penitentiary, picking cotton once more, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. under the gaze of a mounted prison official who carried a bolt-action .30-caliber rifle.
Ryan said “about half a dozen” men were executed “riding the lightning” in the electric chair while he was in Huntsville. He said the lights would flicker above the cells when a man was executed. He was released early into the Army, but only stayed in the service for the shortest possible time.
One evening he was camped on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in a naturally shaped sandstone rest, when he saw the evening star come out directly in front of him.
“I knew that I was perfectly where I needed to be and that I couldn’t ask for anything more. That single moment was equivalent in terms of all that I derived from those four and a half years in Huntsville,” he said.
Ryan studied English literature and drama at the University of Colorado on the GI Bill.
“Never have I been so rich as then,” he said.
His first acting job was at the Peoria, Ill., Cornstock Theater. He then played MacBeth in a Shakespeare Festival in Durant, Okla., and did shows at Bard College and worked in New York off-off-Broadway. When Ryan first arrived in Ketchum, he took a role at the nextStage Theatre’s Shakespeare Festival.
“Theater can get me out of myself,” he said. “I just pay close attention while on stage, and react to what I hear. It can become my entire reality. I have sucked at times and been inspired at times, but acting is what has let me breathe.
“The best acting is when you don’t know the line until you say it. There’s a life lesson—just let life come to you.”