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.”

2 thoughts on “Sheila Ryan: A Memorable Life

  1. Lynn Wells Rumley

    Dear Shelia Ryan Family,
    I am so greatly appreciative for all the work done to create this wonderful website for Sheia and the world.
    It is a miracle tribute to one of the people who made a significant contribution to what was really a small part of the “Bloody Sunday” story—but it was our part, something that we could do and we did.
    I had already quit high school to join the civil rights movement when we sat in that day and moved out of my parents house as soon as I turned sixteen. When I turned eighteen, I left for North Carolina to become a union organizer in 1967.
    As a minor, charges were dismissed against me for the White House sit in with the stipulation that the Federal felony arrest for “illegal entry” would always remain on my record (kind of odd).
    Because of what you all have created, I have been honored to be able to share this moment of my life (and even photos of it that I did not know existed) with my only child (a daughter after 11 tries) and now my three granddaughters.
    And, now I have also read of Shelia’s other work after the sit-in. What an amazing life. I share your pride and I hope you will accept my gratitude. I know my brother, Barry, feels exactly the same.
    I presently live in the small, former cotton mill town of Cooleemee, NC where me and my husband helped to form the Cooleemee Historical Association which created two museums, including a Mill House museum which depicts how an ordinary mill hand’s family lived in 1934.
    After the Army, my sweetheart began his working life as a hoisery worker, signed a union card, was fired and blacklisted, became a union organizer—and I met him in Greensboro in 1967. We were very unsuccessful.
    After living here in Cooleemee for 36 years, we finally figured out why. It was because what they valued over wages and working conditions were their country values such as neighbors helping neighbor and espcially their worship of God as they sought fit. Turns out, After building a network of 160 other mill villaages and towns across the South, turns out the majority of mill folk loved how they grew up in these tight little communities and “wouldn’t give anything for it.”
    So, life turns out funny sometimes. We dedicated our lives to them, so why not listen to their earnest assessment of their own lives. We certainly recorded enough interviews on video tape.
    I lost Jim Rumley, a fine working class, completely self-taught intellectual on August 16, 2020.
    Your site has given me great inspiration. I hope to complete my book on ordinary Southern white plain folks during the next year (hopefully I can survive on one SS check!).
    All my best to your wonderful family I’ve been reading about.
    With warest regards, I am
    Lynn Wells Rumly
    Cooleemee, NC

    1. Matthew Post author


      Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your life story.

      It’s interesting to see the paths that led a diverse group of people through that one moment of protest at the White House and then to further lives in various forms of social-justice work.

      Good luck on the road ahead,

      — Matthew Ryan Cavalletto


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