Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame gains Ryan

—Roxann Ryan followed her dreams, took chances
RIDGEWAY / CRESCO - How did a young farm girl, who attended Ridgeway Elementary, end up getting inducted into the 2021 Class of the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame?
Lots and lots of work.
Dr. Roxann Marie Ryan, Ph.D., will be honored at a virtual ceremony on Nov. 6. She is the daughter of Tom Ryan and the late Elsie Ryan. Also being recognized are the late actress Donna Reed; the late nature photographer Cornelia Clarke; and 1997 Iowa Teacher of the Year Jan Mitchell.
Roxann is not the only successful offspring of Tom and Elsie.
“My brothers are Roger Ryan and Jeff Ryan, who farm southeast of Cresco, which they have done all of their lives. Roger’s wife, Judy Twetten, is a retired teacher. Their daughter Kathryn (Kendall) Kruse have recently moved to a house next door to them. Their son, David, works as an IT programmer in the Washington, D.C. metro.
“My sister, Jean Ryan, is an IT programmer at Luther College. She used to work at Donaldson Company in Cresco, before taking the job at Luther. Her daughter, Sara Gehling, is a student at Luther.”
Roxann has one son, Mike Schmidt and his wife, Lauren McCarthy. They live in Des Moines, just a few blocks from Roxann’s house. 
They have two daughters, Audrey, who just turned six, and Emily, age three.
The most affluent positions she has held is former Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner. For four years (2015-2019), she was in charge of the Iowa State Patrol, Division of Criminal Investigation, Division of Intelligence & Fusion Center, Division of Narcotics Enforcement, State Fire Marshal and Administrative Services.
Her colleagues nominated her for the Women’s Hall of Fame. Their focus was on the various efforts to address violence against women issues (domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and sexually violent predators), her continued support and system changes to encourage more women to become judges (and help them get it done) and the cooperative efforts with bar associations and other groups to address issues of justice and fairness. 
She explained, “My focus has never been exclusively on issues that are important primarily to women, but those issues seem to touch many other issues related to genuine justice and fairness, and my career has always included a focus on justice.”
Her professional journey has never been a straight road. When she graduated from Crestwood High School in 1973, her plan was to be a journalist, attending Iowa State University. 
“I wrote a front-page story in the Iowa State Daily on an economic issue. A professor read it and told me I should go into economics. And that led me to attending law school,” Ryan said. She came to many forks on her life’s path that led her in a totally different direction than she had expected.
She had no plans to work in criminal law, but found it interesting, so she focused on that.
“When I graduated from law school in 1980, I found that there was never a line at the women’s restroom when I attended lawyer events. (Women appreciate that experience more than men do.) When I started as a lawyer, women often were misidentified as secretaries or court reporters. It took some time for lawyers — and the public — to think of lawyers as being male and female. 
“I was very fortunate to spend most of my career in appellate work, where I regularly saw female justices and judges on the bench to hear cases on appeal, and I felt well supported by the appellate courts and Attorney General Tom Miller and Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, to just be a lawyer who happens to be female, and not a female lawyer — or a ‘lady lawyer,’ a moniker that is still around in some places. 
“Many, many women lawyers did not have those advantages, and it made it easier for me to be a good advocate for their interests, so that they could have a more level playing field as lawyers. The changes over the decades have been phenomenal.”
After she passed the bar, there was an opening at the Attorney General’s office that she applied for. She got the job and stayed there for 25 years! “When Bonnie Campbell was the Attorney General in 1988, I was Deputy Attorney General. I regularly worked with all the county attorneys across the state and occasionally with county auditors and other local officials, if cases affected those offices, or if I could provide training for local officials.”
Part of Dr. Ryan’s job was to educate criminal justice public servants to do their job better. She got some of her mother’s teaching skills. “My mom was a wonderful teacher,” she said. “She taught before I was born and then was a substitute teacher for a long time. She loved going to Fareway. She was like royalty. Everyone who had her was happy to see her. She really loved the kids. She knew everybody and could make a connection with every kid.”
Teaching is one of Ryan’s favorite jobs. “Law enforcement is the best audience. They have hard questions. They made me learn a lot more, plus I respect them. They meet every type of person imaginable.”
In 1998, Ryan attended University of Nebraska-Omaha. “I was the first cohort in the UNO program. I worked part time for the attorney general while I went to graduate school.” 
(Academics call the group of students who start at the same time a cohort. The students take the same courses the first year, but they graduate at different times, based on their course of study and the length of time needed to finish their dissertation.)
Ryan was not the first person to get a Ph.D. in that cohort, but she was one of the first five graduates. 
Her dissertation work involved domestic violence issues. “I have taught a domestic violence course at Drake Law School for nearly 20 years, which has helped to shape many, many effective lawyer advocates for victims of domestic violence.”
She added, “It is especially important to me, after meeting so many survivors of domestic violence who inspire me, to change our society to address a problem that affects future generations, too.”
In 2004, she was asked to be a full-time criminal justice professor at Simpson College. “I got lots of good experience. It was a good fit for me. I liked their program. I was planning on retiring from Simpson.”
Then her life took another turn.
After 9/11, she was asked to work in the Department of Public Safety in the Intelligence Fusion Center. “At that time, most states were putting information together to identify potential threats. They were looking for someone who had strategic analysis.”
During her tenure at the Fusion Center she learned things never made public. “It is difficult to live a secret life,” she acknowledged. She was also able to use her skills as an attorney in her position.
“When the Commissioner of Iowa Department of Public Safety retired, I applied and was accepted.” In 2015, Gov. Terry Branstad named Dr. Ryan to serve as the acting commissioner.
She joked, “After I was named Commissioner, I didn’t speed. I thought that would look bad that the person in charge of all law enforcement in the State of Iowa got a speeding ticket.”
On a serious note, she recalled, “In the four years I held the position, six police officers were killed in the line of duty. It is a constant reminder that risks are extremely high. As commissioner, it is constantly on your mind.”
As she was approaching the end of four years in office, Ryan thought about her parents. “They had health problems. Mom was diagnosed with cancer and dementia. I wanted to keep them on the farm. I was able to continue to teach online courses. I can teach anywhere. Simpson taught us how to teach online. I was glad to be there to take care of my parents.”
 In fact, they stayed in the house they built in 1972 (on the farm they bought in 1958) – largely because their daughter could be with them to help out. Elsie had to go to a care center when she required more medical attention than they could manage at home. Her mother passed away in May 2020 at the age of 90. 
Tom, at 91, still keeps track of what is happening around town.
“My dad is still at home on the farm. He broke his shoulder in August and stayed at the Evans Home for a few weeks for skilled care, which he really enjoyed, but he’s back at home on the farm now. I’ll be here for as long as he needs help. 
“There are a lot of great social opportunities at Evans, especially because he has lived in the area all of his life and knows so many people, but it’s comforting for him to sit in his chair and see the same beautiful trees and fields that he’s enjoyed seeing since his 20s. And farmers do thrive on a sense of independence! 
“It’s also great for him when his sons can stop in briefly to give him the updates on the harvest and all of the other things going on with the farming operation. And my sister can visit with him regularly, too, and bring him some favorite foods. She inherited my mom’s cooking skills!”
Looking back over her career, she says, “I had many, many great mentors over the years, including my teachers in Cresco, especially Gary Koppenhaver and Luanne Wagoner, and they showed me how important it is to pay it forward and serve as a mentor for others. 
“It’s been an honor and a gift to be a mentor over the years, and to watch how well the younger people can change the world.
“Gary Koppenhaver was very, very disappointed that I went to law school instead of being a reporter. I have no regrets about the life journey, but I do miss the joy of interviewing interesting people in order to share their stories!”
One thing that is a constant in Ryan’s life has been change. She advises young people to follow their hearts. “You have to do what you enjoy doing. There is no limit. You can make a difference in the lives of people you don’t even know. Follow your dreams.”

Cresco Times

Phone: 563-547-3601
Fax: 563-547-4602

Cresco TPD
214 N. Elm Street
Cresco, IA 52136

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