WWII veteran Robert Edward Ryan of Alton shares 100 years of faith

100 years of faith
WWII veteran Robert Edward Ryan of Alton shares century of advice

ALTON —It’s a Sunday morning in Alton. Fresh off a work week as a lawyer at his own firm, Robert Edward Ryan puts on his suit and tie and gets in his car and drives to his home parish of Ss. Peter and Paul for Mass. He gets there early because he is an usher at this morning’s Mass. He greets familiar faces and friends with a smile, charm, and pep in his step. Everyone calls him “Bob.” Envisioning these Sunday morning scenes, you would never know that on Sept. 23, Ryan turned 100 years old.    

“I’m short on wisdom; I’ve just lived my life and feel that God has smiled at me all my life in whatever I’ve done,” Ryan said.

Born in Alton, he has called the city home since. Married to Mary Jane for 53 years, Ryan is now widowed (she died in 2013). He has three children, one deceased, and three granddaughters. 

Remembering his baptism date, Oct. 14, 1923, and the priest who baptized him, Msgr. E. L. Spaulding, VC, Ryan has called Ss. Peter and Paul his home parish since the very beginning, ushering there for half a century. 

“I’m Catholic because I believe in what the faith teaches us down through the centuries, until now,” Ryan said.

Having a strong faith has come in handy over the past 100 years. Serving in World War II from 1943-1945, Ryan was captured and imprisoned for 11 months in a German war camp. 

“Sometimes it was bad living conditions and sometimes not,” Ryan recalls. “Occasionally a priest came to offer Mass which was a great help. The worst was when the Russians were coming (our camp was southeast of Berlin). We were afraid if the Russians got us, we might be terminated. But at the end, we were evacuated, marched on and off for six days in snowy weather, finally loaded into box cars, traveling for three days until we were in American territory. The worst part of that was being in those box cars with no toilet, lights, seats, beds, windows, or heat. That was horrible. Also, the day we were evacuated we had a Field Mass which was a blessing.”

Ryan is known for his sense of humor, with pastor Father Jeff Holtman, OFS, calling him a “remarkable man.” When asked about pieces of advice Ryan can offer, his answer is simple, “Play by the rules, be kind, and be respectful. Many people don’t do this,” he said.

Ryan attends Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. He says he doesn’t like his prayer life to be just saying prayers for the sake of saying prayers. Over the past century, he has come to appreciate the power of prayer, something he calls “POP.” 

“(There is) no doubt in my mind that when we were in combat, and then in the war camp, that I had family, friends, and others praying for me/us,” Ryan said. 

With the busyness of today’s world, relationships with others, be it family, friends, co-workers, or even brief encounters with strangers, can be difficult to manage. Ryan says if you want to have authentic relationships, it starts with “being respectful to others no matter who they are.”

As Ryan thinks back on his 100 years, he recalls a story from a granddaughter’s wedding reception that sums up his life perfectly. 

“Her dad got up and told the groom that he was becoming a part of the best family around. That’s the way I feel.”