I was first introduced to George Ryan by my friend Jeff Huber about five years ago. We all served on the board of trustees for a museum, which sometimes was the equivalent of fighting a war. If there was ever something that needed to be said, or something right that needed to be stuck up for, George was the one to do it. We quickly became friends, all three of us sharing a love of the American Civil War. He oversaw accounting for the museum and soon became my family’s accountant. I don’t think there are many people who looked forward to seeing their tax guy in April as much as me, because every time was cause for a conversation about the Civil War in some way. His office contained paintings and artifacts which I used to marvel at. He could talk about anything to anyone, but we more often than not got on the subject of Gettysburg. He used to take scout troops out there camping, and always looked forward to it.
In time, the three of us left the museum board but of course stayed friends. Though I would see George only once or twice a year, each time we met carried on like no time had elapsed. I loved hearing him tell stories. He used to get this twinkle in his eye and very easily make himself laugh. George had been writing a book on the 5th New Jersey regiment from the Civil War. He told me the story of a battle in which the group of soldiers, from his home town of Woodbridge, had accidentally been fired upon by other Union soldiers. George then leaned back in his chair and with a loud laugh erupted, “It was probably because they were from New Jersey!” Over the years, I heard the story several times, and it never got old.
However, there was more than stories or business when it came to seeing George, because he was a man who cared. Each time we met started out with him asking how my college classes or work was going. He took a genuine interest, always offering to write me a letter of recommendation if I needed it, and saying how proud he was of me when he found out about a scholarship I received. He would ask about family and friends, wanting to know what was going on and if I and everyone else was doing alright. He wasn’t just shooting the breeze. He cared. When I had asked him about his book research, about a week later I received a packet of pages in the mail from his manuscript which was still a work in progress. He told me to call him when I had read it to let him know how I liked it. In the meantime, I discovered that a coworker of mine had a grandfather who served in World War I. The regiment he fought in, which went by a different number, had actually been the 5th NJ originally. When I called to let him know, he was floored and fascinated. George got very excited and I could tell he was jotting things down just in case he needed them for the book. In the background, phones were ringing off the hook and I could hear the office was busy, but we chatted for nearly an hour. That’s just the kind of guy he was. Unfortunately, the book would go unfinished.
Before Jeff introduced us all those years ago, he joked, “If you’re in a rush, don’t tell him you’re into the Civil War because you won’t get away.” Then, whenever I would introduce a friend to him, I would tell them, “Hey, tell George you hate the Civil War and let me know how that goes.” The man was passionate. When meetings at the museum got out of hand, he didn’t stand for any of it. He knew what to say and when to say it, always sticking up for what was right. No matter what, though, there was always that sense of caring.
The last time I saw George was this past spring. We knew he had beaten brain cancer, and was doing okay. He looked good and was his cheerful self. We talked for nearly three hours that afternoon, about the Civil War, school, work, everything, as he processed the paperwork. I had brought him a copy of my book which was published the previous fall, and he was ecstatic. He told me how proud he was and how he couldn’t wait for me to start teaching because he knew how good I would be. When we shook hands and I left the office, little did I know that would be the last time I ever saw him. A letter came in the mail last week, addressed to all his clients, saying how he was retiring after many years of accounting. Before I could even call to congratulate him and maybe plan a get-together with Jeff and him, I got a call from Jeff yesterday saying the cancer had come back and he was taking a turn for the worse. This afternoon, only a day later, the text came that he had passed away. It was quick. Too quick.
What does one say about George? We didn’t see each other too often, I don’t know his family and they don’t know me, and I don’t even have any pictures of him or with him, but he has still left such a lasting impression on me. My experiences with him were nothing but positive. I just wish we could have seen each other more. Farewell, George. We’re all going to miss you.