Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Today Bernard Ryan ’46 writes biographies for children.

July 7, 2004:

From pushing products to educating kids
Bernard Ryan ’46 has spent a lifetime crafting words

By Maria LoBiondo


Hearing Bernard Ryan Jr. ’46 catalogue his media-filled career — in film, radio, television, advertising, and publishing — one can’t help thinking he’s lived his philosophy: “One shouldn’t be afraid to tackle anything.”

He’s been copywriter and executive, entrepreneur and researcher. But from his first assignments for the student-run newspaper at his Connecticut prep school and his Princeton classes with poet and literary critic Richard P. Blackmur, underpinning all his endeavors has been his writing.

The highlights are colorful. In the early days of television, Ryan wrote three-minute commercials for General Electric Theater, including one explaining how a jet engine works, featuring Ronald Reagan as spokesman. He also helped compose radio and TV commercials hyping Schaefer Beer, used by Brooklyn Dodgers play-by-play announcer Red Barber.

And he was part of the advertising team for Betty Crocker’s products, which included the perk of trying out the brownies, muffins and cake mixes. “We regularly went to the General Mills test kitchen, met with its staff people, and literally mixed and baked the Betty Crocker mixes. Especially good fun if you have a sweet tooth,” Ryan recalls. But he also ran his own advertising agency — Wilson, Ryan & Leigh, Inc. of Westport, Connecticut — and later became senior vice president/public affairs at the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Today, Ryan is tackling biographies targeted for students in grades six through nine for the publisher Franklin Watts, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc. Just out is his study of Hillary Rodham Clinton; his book on Stephen Hawking will be published this summer. And three more 100-page biographies are in the works — on Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos ’86, financial guru Warren Buffett, and former president Jimmy Carter.

How did he get from advertising copy to youth biographies? A lifelong aviation buff, Ryan first pitched the idea of a biography on the Wright Brothers to coincide with the anniversary of their historic flight in 1903. “These books take as much work as an adult biography,” Ryan says. “You get to know the person and learn a great deal in the process.”

A common mantra for writers is: “Write what you know.” But Ryan has taken a slightly different tack for the 30 some books he’s authored, coauthored, or ghostwritten. When a subject intrigued him, he used that as motivation. This led to books such as Helping Your Child Start School; an eight-volume series on community service for teens; and contributions to three serious reference books for anyone curious about real courtroom facts. “Tackling a new subject was always irresistible,” Ryan says.

While nonfiction is his usual playground, Ryan has dabbled in fiction with an early chapter book, Tyler’s Titanic (2003), about a youngster who finds a way to visit the sunken ship.

Ryan is perhaps best known to his classmates as their PAW class secretary. But he didn’t always know his classmates as well as he does now. As part of the accelerated program Princeton offered during World War II, Ryan zipped through his studies in two-and-a-half years, but was ineligible for military service due to severe asthma. He remembers being one of the few students in civilian clothes in classes in which 15 to 18 others were in uniform.

“I missed a great deal,” Ryan says. “When my classmates returned to campus from their military service, I had all ready graduated, so I was really out of touch with the genuine ’46 experience except for the freshman period from June 1942 to February 1943.”

It wasn’t until his 35th reunion that he began really reconnecting. For his 50th, he wrote We Are There, a history of his class during their undergraduate years.

When he’s not researching new subjects, Ryan might be found polishing up his Web site, www.bernardryanjr.com.

Maria LoBiondo is an occasional contributor to PAW.