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Reflections on the Life of John M. Ryan Jr.
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Delivered by VBA Past President M. Langhorne Keith at first VBA Past Presidents dinner, April 19, 2018


Some will recall the Winter Meeting where Dean Spong was drafted to replace a speaker who at the last minute was unable to make it to Williamsburg. I’m sure The Senator’s remarks were succinct, impressively learned, and remarkably well-received, but I only remember his conclusion. He thanked the association for letting him be a member of an association where he had enjoyed such good fellowship usually accompanied with equally good whiskey. If John Ryan were with us this evening, many of us would echo Bill Spong, and thank John for the good times we shared with him at the VBA.

John was an accomplished lawyer, a longtime partner at Vandeventer Black, a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at William & Mary Law School, holder of the prestigious Distinguished Service Award from the Virginia Maritime Association, who successfully represented the Virginia Port Authority for many years. But more importantly, John was an utterly charming and amusing friend. They say in Washington if you want a friend, get a dog. In Virginia and many other venues, if you wanted a friend, get to know John Ryan. He was uncommonly loyal to his friends. When home in hospice care, days away from dying, John asked two old friends, partners who had been estranged for many years, to come to his bedside. They did and John did his best to get these friends to reconcile.

A talented artist, his sculptures were featured in the Virginia Beach Art show for many years. He was a pitcher on the Norfolk Academy baseball team and was a founder of the UVa and Norfolk rugby teams.

John was president of the VBA in 1988, the VBA’s Centennial Year. In the VBA Journal’s President’s page, marking 100 years of the VBA, John, in typically irreverent fashion, quoted Judge Posner’s article written for the 100th anniversary of the Harvard Law Review: “The fact that it is 100 years old should interest only people who have a superstitious reverence for round numbers.” What was significant, John wrote, was that for 100 years we have “persisted in our effort to improve our profession, the law and our system of justice.”

John wrote his own obituary, in which confessed to being a “lackluster student.” After reciting his love for Simone, his mother, and his children, he ended his obit as follows: “John treasured Shakespeare, Virginia, the sea and the men who go upon it, rugby football, gardening, martinis, good art, his friends, some of his partners, and all of his clients. He was grateful to God for a full life and the privilege of serving the Law.” Ladies and Gentlemen, that is no mean legacy. To John Ryan.


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