Author Archives: Matthew

In Loving Memory

Sheila (Quebec, Black and White, Full Size)

Sheila Patricia Ryan

March 1st, 1945-January 20th, 2013
Memorial Service
Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm
The New York Society For Ethical Culture
Ceremonial Hall, 4th Floor
Two West 64th Street
New York NY
Memories of Sheila
Stuart Hanlon
Alan Howard
Andrew Marx
Nubar Hovsepian
Jennifer Havens
Warren Ng
Imoite Omelepu
Caitlin Ryan
Reception to Follow
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to
The Special Needs Clinic, NY Presbyterian Hospital,
Care of: Dr. Ng, 622 West 168th Street, VC4 East,
New York, NY 10032


Sheila Ryan: A Memorable Life

Sheila was born in Oxnard, CA in 1945. Her father, John Lawrence Ryan, was a civil engineer who spent World War II building airstrips in the Pacific, then worked on dams and highways when he returned to civilian life. Her mother, Margaret Patricia Mullen, was a schoolteacher. Her parents went on to have three more children, Margaret, John, and Kathleen. After Oxnard, the family spent a few years in Peterborough, NH, before moving to Braintree, MA, where her childhood was, in Sheila’s words, “very, very happy.”

Her academic successes won her a full scholarship to Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. where she majored in philosophy, and it was there that her compassion first drew her into political activism. When she was just eighteen, a desegregation campaign in nearby Cambridge, MD, erupted into violence, and Sheila joined the protests, enduring tear gas for the first time. She began volunteering at the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee’s D.C. office, and went to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer efforts to help African Americans register to vote.

In March 1965, in the wake of police in Selma brutally beating voting rights marchers, Sheila helped to lead the first ever sit-in at the White House, going on an official tour with eleven other young protestors until they reached the East Hall, where they sat down and sung “We Shall Not Be Moved,” demanding to speak with President Johnson about Selma. After seven hours, the protestors were arrested and dragged out by police. Sheila was later sentenced to six months in the Washington Women’s House of Detention, where she continued her activism, staging protests and organizing an unsanctioned prisoner-to-prisoner literacy program.

During a delay after sentencing, while she was finishing her college degree, Sheila became involved in the Students for a Democratic Society, and began writing articles for the Washington Free Press, an “underground” newspaper. In early 1968, shortly after being released from jail, she traveled to Cuba with SDS, then returned to write about what she had seen, publishing in the Free Press and in a new alternative press agency called Liberation News Service.

In the summer of 1968 she joined LNS and moved to New York, where she met George; they fell in love, and were married a year later. Their honeymoon included a trip to the Middle East, where they wrote articles for LNS from Amman, Jordan. They went back to the Middle East the next summer and stayed for more than a year, sending home detailed reports from the Jordanian civil war.

They returned to New York in the middle of 1971, shortly before the birth of their first child, Matthew. Two years later, Daniel was born, and then Nathaniel in 1977, Joseph in 1980, and Caitlin in 1981. When the kids were young, Sheila convinced George to go on a canoe camping trip. Although she had never been canoeing, she had read a few books and was confident they’d be able to figure it out. Sure enough, they did, and the entire family went camping and canoeing nearly every summer for the next four decades.

From 1975 through 1982, Sheila led the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which helped to spread public awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people. She also returned to the Middle East multiple times for research and reporting, sometimes bringing her children. In the 1980s, Sheila helped organize the National Emergency Committee on Lebanon and the Middle East Peace Network, and wrote a book, several book chapters, and innumerable journal articles on Palestinian and Middle East issues, as well as co-hosted a WBAI radio program on international affairs.

In 1990, Sheila returned to school, earning simultaneous Masters degrees in Social Work and Public Health from Columbia University. An internship placement led her to the Special Needs Clinic, which had just been launched to provide support for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS. She spent the next twenty years as the clinic’s program director, mentoring the staff and providing psychotherapy to both children and adults.

In an interview in 1999, she described the clinic’s patients in a way that suggests parallels to the concerns of her earlier activism: “These are people whom the system considers expendable. They’ve been beaten down and traumatized, their families have been torn apart. And still they won’t give up. Their will to survive—not just in a physical sense but as human beings—is inspiring.”

An Amazing Cook

Sheila was an accomplished cook, in any setting.

Even our picnics were extensively catered.

She had worked as a short-order cook in a roadside restaurant near the Bourne bridge as a summer job while she was a teenager, but most of her cooking skills seemed to be self-taught, through books and experimentation .

Beheading Artichokes Central Park Picnic

2008, 2012: Campaigning for Obama

In both 2008 and 2012, Sheila and George went on road trips to nearby swing states in an effort to get out the vote for Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Her first signs of weakness emerged while she was doing campaign field work near Philadelphia the weekend before the election — although we didn’t know that the weakness was due to cancer for several weeks after that.

As she grew sicker, she continued to take pride in a sense that she and George were responsible for some infinitesimal fraction of Obama’s electoral college votes for Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Cape Breton

Since the mid-1990s, Sheila has led us on multiple summer trips to Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

We first rented a house in the Margaree valley in the 1990s, and then found our way to the Ross house, located on a bluff between Margaree Harbor and Whale Cove, looking out onto the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We returned there for several years in a row, most recently in July and August of 2012.

Ross House Deck Ross House Boil 

Video: “Six Shots of Limoncello”

Joe put together this great video from a trip to the Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens in Quebec last February:

— “Dinner at Anciens Canadiens“, Posted on YouTube

As Caitlin tells the story:

When we rented a house in Italy near Sorento [in 2002], every time we went out to eat, they gave us each a shot of limoncello. One night none of us wanted our shots and I bet Sheila she couldn’t drink all six shots and make it through the windy drive back home without throwing up. She downed them all and didn’t bat an eye.

NY Times: “Their Unexpected Adolescence”

This 2005 article about the changing experience of HIV+ adolescents includes quotes from Sheila:

”This is not like cancer,” says Sheila Ryan, program director of the Special Needs Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian. ”These families are not a cross-section of the population. These issues would be agonizing for any family to deal with, but the families that are likely to be dealing with H.I.V. are more likely to have problems with substance abuse and mental illness. These are poor families, and even within the poor community more likely to be fragile than others on the same block.” …

”The two issues they keep coming back to,” Sheila Ryan of Columbia-Presbyterian says, ”are the permanence of the virus — the idea that there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it — and what kind of impact it will have on their capacity to have children, which is partly a question about the ways in which they might be impaired or maimed or less than others.”

”Sometimes kids find ways of protecting themselves from the information,” Ryan adds. ”One girl who was in here, at the time we finally said the word H.I.V., she said, ‘But I know I don’t have AIDS.’ I said, ‘How’d you figure that out?’ And she said, ‘Because if you have AIDS, you’re skinny and living in Africa, so I know I don’t have it.’ Or another girl who was 15 — her mother told her the week before she came in here for the first time, and her response to that was simply that her mother had lied to her.”

— From “Their Unexpected Adolescence“, by Jonathan Dee, New York Times, June 26, 2005

Letter to the Editor: “Israeli use of Cobra and Apache helicopters against Jenin”

Here’s a letter to the editor of the New York Times that Sheila wrote in 2002:

To the Editor:

Jimmy Carter reminds us that American weapons supplied to the Israeli government are to be used for defensive purposes only, “a legal requirement,” he observes, “certainly being violated in the recent destruction in Jenin and other towns of the West Bank” (Op-Ed, April 21).

Media accounts abound of Israeli use of Cobra and Apache helicopters against Jenin: indeed, in an April 18 news article you reported finding debris with English stenciling near the body of an elderly woman apparently killed in an Apache missile attack on the refugee camp there. The United Nations is investigating the catastrophic events in Jenin. Congress will be shamefully shirking responsibility if it fails to inquire into the use of American weapons in Israel’s recent attacks on West Bank cities, villages and refugee camps.

New York, April 21, 2002

— From “Peace, Morality and the Mideast“, New York Times, April 23, 2002

2000: Warning of “a serious lack of services nationwide”

Sheila is cited in this report by a director of Faith House in St. Louis:

A larger, unmet challenge still faces us. HIV/AIDS is now the sixth leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Sheila Ryan of the Special Needs Clinic of the New York Presbyterian Hospital warns about a serious lack of services nationwide for HIV-infected teens. Adolescents do not fit into most traditional programs because of their particular learning problems and emotional and behavioral issues. It is past time for our community to address this population.

— From “Faith House gets $500,000 grant from Dana Brown Foundation“, by Mildred Jamison, St. Louis Business Journal, Nov 26, 2000.