March 30, 1943 – June 11, 2016
Joseph E. Ryan, a former Buffalo city planning chief and veterans advocate who made an inspirational comeback from an accident that left him paralyzed, died June 11 in Hospice Buffalo Wells House, Beechwood Campus, Getzville. He was 73.
Born in Buffalo, the eldest of 10 children, he was a 1961 graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, where he was president of his graduating class and an all-Catholic and all-Western New York football player. At Cornell University, where he earned a degree in industrial and labor relations, he captured all-Ivy League honors as a center and linebacker.
He served in the Navy from 1965 to 1969 and spent 17 months in Vietnam as a diving team commander, mainly in the Mekong Delta area. He earned the Bronze Star and rose to the rank of lieutenant.
Returning from service, Mr. Ryan was co-owner of Ryan’s New Federal Pub at Elmwood Avenue and Cary Street and was working as an engineering consultant in 1971 when Mayor Frank Sedita named him executive director of his Citizens Advisory Committee. He held the post until 1975, helping to set up the community development block grant program and fostering the growth of nonprofit neighborhood groups.
He ran as an independent Democrat for a seat on the Erie County Legislature in 1977, losing to Joan Bozer.
He also was active in programs for Vietnam veterans. In 1982, he helped found the local Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program and served as its first president.
Then, in August 1985, while bicycling to train for a triathlon, he crashed into a barricade along the Buffalo waterfront and fractured his spine. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
Nevertheless, from his hospital bed, he completed arrangements for the Best of the Turtles race, which he had conceived to raise scholarship money for the children of local Vietnam veterans. He spent nearly a year in rehabilitation.
Out of the hospital, he plunged into veterans activities and housing and development projects through the Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition. He was active with the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans, which advocated for veterans on health care issues, and served on its national board of directors.
He took part in the Paralyzed Veterans of America Wheelchair Games in 1987 and helped raise $2,500 for the ECMC spinal cord injury unit.
For several years, he was president of Bezel Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in the development and management of independent living facilities for the long-term disabled. He did work for many years for the Community Action Organization. In 1991, he became a real estate development consultant.
Mayor Anthony Masiello appointed him as community development commissioner in 1998. During his 4½ years as the city’s planning chief, he worked to develop a comprehensive plan to revitalize neighborhoods and create a citywide strategy to encourage business.
After retiring from the post, he joined a group of developers in revitalizing several decaying properties in the 800 and 900 blocks of Main Street. He also continued his volunteer work. In recent years, he spent winters in Florida.
He was a former president of Friends of Night People, served as chairman of the Board of Managers for Erie County Medical Center in the 1990s and was a member of the board of directors of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.
He also was a board member of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, the Buffalo Area Council of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation and the Cornell University Presidential Council.
Mr. Ryan received numerous awards. Named a Buffalo News Citizen of the Year in 1986, his citation noted that he “has probably done more for Vietnam veterans than anyone else in Buffalo.” He received the D’Youville College Community Service Award in 1986 and was given the Clarkson Center’s Courage to Come Back Award in 1995.
Survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Eileen Head; a son, Sean P.; five brothers, Patrick M., William F., Daniel R., John and Mark; three sisters, Mary Ellen, Kathleen Reilly and Colleen; and three grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Joseph University Catholic Church, 3269 Main St.