Obituary: Edward M. Ryan / Pioneer in home building and harness racing

March 2, 1924 - June 1, 2012


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Edward M. Ryan thought he was simply building a house for himself and his wife in Mt. Lebanon after returning from service in World War II.

But that house never became the couple's home. Instead, it was the first step in building a corporation bearing his name -- Ryan Homes Inc. -- that has become one of the top five homebuilders in the country.

Mr. Ryan, 88, of Asbury Heights in Mt. Lebanon, died of a stroke Friday at UPMC Mercy.

Mr. Ryan, a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, was shot down over Germany, became a prisoner of war and received the Purple Heart. On May 19, 1945, he married Ann Chastaine, his sweetheart at Mt. Lebanon High School, from which he graduated with honors. She died in October 2002.

He learned carpentry as a teenager, working for a fledgling home building company started by his father, who died when the younger Mr. Ryan was 16.

So when he bought a lot on Scott Road in Mt. Lebanon, it only made sense that he build the couple's home himself.

But he did such a fine job and received such a handsome offer -- $8,500 -- from a stranger to purchase it that he sold the home without ever moving in.

"That was a fortune to me at the time," Mr. Ryan said in an interview two decades ago. It came at a time he was making $1.50 an hour as a carpenter and $1.25 an hour as a remodeler.

He realized he might have found his life's work.

"With that money he bought two more lots and built two more houses, and it just went from there," said his daughter, Susie Gillespie of Upper St. Clair.

Naturally, Mr. Ryan needed lumber, and a lot of it, for his home construction company, which initially was named Edward M. Ryan Inc. Builders, so he urged his boyhood friend Joe Hardy to go into business with him.

The friends started Green Hills Lumber on McMurray Road in Upper St. Clair. Eventually, Mr. Ryan concentrated on the home building, and Mr. Hardy took over the lumber business, renaming it 84 Lumber Co. in honor of its new location.

At his company, Mr. Ryan used innovative ideas, such as prefabrication, that subsequently became common in the industry.

He was known for keeping an intense schedule and for connecting with people. Mr. Ryan said in 1992 that it all boiled down to "betting on people." The key to success, he said, is recognizing good people, getting them to work for you, and keeping them.

But he eventually tired of stockholders' meetings, board meetings and traveling from city to city to "talk to people about numbers," he said. After building 60,000 homes in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, Mr. Ryan retired as chairman of the board of Ryan Homes in 1973.

"My father loved knowing the people and having personal relationships. He liked the personal connection. The company grew to an extent he didn't have that anymore," Ms. Gillespie said.

The business, now part of parent company NVR, builds homes ranging in cost from less than $100,000 to more than $600,000 in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Ryan continued to work after retirement. He focused on acquiring and renting townhomes and garden apartments. He took up ice skating and would practice an hour each morning. He was known for making elaborate time and motion charts to ensure he spent his days as profitably as possible.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Ryan, who owned harness racing horses, again joined forces with Mr. Hardy to purchase The Meadows Racetrack, where they introduced computerized betting.

For that and other innovations such as televised horse racing through the Meadows Racing Network and telephone wagering through Call-a-Bet, Mr. Ryan was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y. He sold his interest in the Meadows in 1988.

His daughter said his business success "was just a sidebar to my Dad. He was very, very Irish and very, very Catholic with unwavering faith.

"He was always very philanthropic. My father totally believed what he had in life was a gift from God and how he used it was a gift back to God."

Mr. Ryan was a great supporter of the March of Dimes because his son, Edward M. Ryan Jr., had muscular dystrophy. He died in 1963 at the age of 17.

Mr. Ryan also spent years in Homestead, Fla., and contributed to relief and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He volunteered time and money to rebuild housing, schools and businesses after viewing the devastation first-hand. Again, he teamed up with Mr. Hardy, who opened an 84 Lumber Co. store there to provide jobs and materials for rebuilding.

"He was an extreme optimist. I never saw my Dad down. He appreciated everything in life and appreciated everything people did for him, even the smallest thing," Ms. Gillespie said.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Ryan is survived by a son, Tom Ryan of Bethel Park; two brothers, James Ryan of Maryland and William Ryan of Ohio; and nine grandchildren.

Friends will be received at Beinhauers, 2828 Washington Road, McMurray, from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Grace Church, Scott. Interment will be in Queen of Heaven Cemetery.

Memorial contributions may be made to Heavenly Cause Foundation for the Edward M. Ryan Sr. Scholarship, Manor Oak #2, Suite 100, 1910 Cochran Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15220.

obituaries

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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