NEW ALBANY —
Throughout his 73 years, Col. Bill Ryall changed lives. From trying to bring down the Iron Curtain covering Cold War Russia to coaching college students in both tennis and in life, Ryall rarely understood the word “quit.” No matter the predicament, the colonel could be counted on to help out with his sharp mind, unassuming demeanor and kind smile. That was Ryall’s way.
With Ryall’s death on Monday, the community mourns the loss of one of its greatest supporters and ardent activists.
Joe Glover, athletic director at Indiana University Southeast, liked to stop by Ryall’s IU Southeast office, sip on coffee and talk with the instructor who always placed everyone else’s needs above his own. Always available, Ryall loved the school and the students he taught.
“It’s hard to put in words what he meant to us,” Glover said. “He was very good at giving advice and listening and being the one to give you the bigger picture about life and what we’re here to do.”
In 1996, the school hired Ryall to coach both the men’s and women’s tennis program. Leading came easily to the tennis fan. With a 310-58 record, more than 84 percent of the games he coached while at IU Southeast resulted in a victory. In 2001 he handed the reins over to a new men's coach and in 2009 stepped down from the women’s due to his health. During his years of coaching, Ryall also became an adjunct professor at the university, teaching sports-related subjects.
In October this year, IU Southeast honored Ryall with the Chancellor’s Medallion, one of the university’s highest honors. Friends, co-workers and family, among other community members, attended the event and paid homage to Ryall’s life of service. More than $125,000 was raised for scholarships that night, a record amount.
As a child, Ryall grew up witnessing selfless behavior firsthand. His father, Burke Ryall, served in World War II, and later the Korean War. The family moved a lot during those childhood years. His father’s assignment to Fort Knox brought him back to New Albany when he was in fourth grade.
“In those days, I think everybody was in the same condition,” Ryall said in an interview last month about receiving the Chancellor’s Medallion award. “We were so poor. We just didn’t know it.”
Not having money didn’t stop Ryall from staying active. His days were spent playing sports at Bicknell Park. At 12, he got a job sweeping a local shoe store for around 50 cents a day. A chance present — the book “How to Play Tennis” — from the shop’s owner, though, would shape his future. Entranced, he and his friend would study the manuscript and teach themselves how to play the game. Pretty soon, the two were among the top tennis players in the area.
After graduating from New Albany High School in 1958, Ryall journeyed to Bloomington to attend Indiana University where he would graduate with a history degree. His vocation during those years was still undecided. President John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” altered that.
Feeling the call to service, Ryall joined the U.S. Army.
Changing the world wasn’t always as simple as President Kennedy made it sound. Ryall would find himself in situations that weren’t easily resolved. One of the events that shaped the remainder of his life occurred overseas in Germany.
A commanding officer had given orders to the young lieutenant to transport his troops and their armored vehicles across the Rhine on the coldest day Europe had experienced in more than 100 years. Knowing the dangers, Ryall challenged his superior. The higher ranked officer replied with the threat of a court-martial. Ryall conceded and minded the order. His fears, though, would be realized. Several of his soldiers were lost because of the operation.
“He said go, and I didn’t have the courage to say no,” Ryall said. “As a result, a considerable number of men lost their lives. From that point on for the rest of my life, it gave me the moral conviction to always stand up and do what you know is correct.”
Ryall then transferred to being a tank officer. He and his men would come to be known as the best tank unit in all of Europe. The success obtained Ryall a special assignment — to escort President Kennedy during his 1963 visit to Berlin.
Following the assignment, Ryall took a break from active duty and returned to New Albany. While teaching at New Albany High School, he met Scribner Middle School teacher Martha “Marty” Minogue. Ryall was smitten with the Louisville native and eventually asked Marty to marry him with the promise of taking her on a honeymoon to Germany. She accepted. They were married for 47 years.
A man of his word, Ryall lived up to his promise. He and Marty traveled to Germany and taught for the U.S. Department of Defense Overseas Schools in Europe. For 30 years, the couple and their two children, Jennifer and John, would live across the pond, spending time in Germany, Norway, England and Belgium.
“My family is my No. 1 passion,” Ryall said. “I’m so proud of our son and our daughter and their smart mother who is responsible for everything they achieved.”
While serving as a teacher and administrator to American students living on overseas bases, Ryall continued his military career through the Army Reserves. During the next 30 years, he helped standardize West German military equipment and lingo with that of its U.S. allies. He also studied the power and abilities of the Soviet military as well as its troop placement.
“The one thing I got out of the military was that you respect people,” Ryall said. “You don’t let race or religion or creed or anything of that nature affect how you treat or deal with people.”
For his promoting better understanding between the NATO nations, the German government presented Ryall The Honor Cross of the German Army at the end of his career, the highest award given to a foreign officer. He also graduated from the Army War College, one of the most challenging academic studies he said he had ever accomplished.
Aging parents brought the family back to Indiana in 1995. By the time of his retirement he had spent 38 years in military service. Marty went back to teaching, and Ryall took over the tennis team at IU Southeast.
“I’d like to think that I’ve made a small contribution to helping all the students have a positive experience that I came in contact with at IUS,” he said. “They were a reflection of everything you would have wanted them to be. But they were always students first and athletes second.”
Ryall also contributed to the community through his involvement with the local Rotary Club. Promoting world peace was something in which he was intimately acquainted. Through programs aimed at combating illiteracy, fighting polio and promoting maternal care, Ryall affected change around the globe. He even led a group study exchange to Austria and served as club president and district governor.
“Rotary has been a wonderful opportunity to serve and to give back to the community and to the state and just to help out all over the world,” Ryall said. “Everyone should be involved in some way, fashion, shape or form in paying back and helping others. We need to understand there are people in other parts of the world who have no idea how great we have it here in this country.”
Friends and family agree that Ryall exemplified this creed throughout his life of service and honor.
“He was always giving of himself to make our community better and others in our community better,” Glover said. “He represented our community in extraordinary ways.”