February 28, 2013
You have to be of a certain age to have known Lima’s Tom Ryan. He was from a simpler time, one with antennas on every roof to watch small, snowy, flickering black-and-white TV pictures. An era when few went to college and most just went to work, wherever they could find it.
Tom was born just when the Great Depression started, on the other side of the railroad tracks, in mostly-black south Lima, where his hard-working parents, Leo and Lillian, ran a small mom and pop grocery. They were Irish-Catholic, and Tom attended St. John’s Catholic Church on South Main.
As a youth, he walked more than two miles to South Elizabeth Street to attend Lincoln Elementary School, the same school I would attend a dozen years later.
He graduated from South High School in the class of 1951. He may have played sports, possibly football, for the South Tigers, but I really don’t know, as he never talked about it.
Oh, he wasn’t really a quiet guy, he just didn’t talk much about himself. Instead, he used his great gift of imagination and a warm, rich baritone voice to entertain, telling jokes and singing in South High’s choirs.
In 1953, something new began on Lima’s Rice Avenue: Small, locally owned television station WLOK-TV went on the air on UHF channel 73.
Tom and his brother, Bob, worked after school in the family grocery, but Tom got a part-time job on the other side of town, as a janitor at the small TV station, sweeping floors and emptying waste paper baskets.
Fascinated, Tom wanted to learn everything about this new TV thing and worked tirelessly behind the scenes and eventually in front of the camera.
He later said just about anything was better than chopping meat on the butcher block at his folks' grocery.
In the ’50s, Lima was bigger than a “one-horse town,” but it was a single-TV station town, with just one camera in its small studio. Through experience, Tom learned how to deliver commercials on camera, reading a cue sheet before there were electronic teleprompters. Instead, the sponsor’s message was handwritten on the back of unused rolls of wallpaper and held next the camera lens to be read live.
Tom’s sincerity really came through the studio camera. He also was quite good-looking, with a full head of dark hair. And he was believable.
He met and married a pretty girl, Joan Harrison. They made a handsome couple and later had two sons, Thomas and Dennis.
In 1955, the local radio station, WIMA, purchased the TV station, changed its call letters to WIMA-TV and the frequency to channel 35. When it was sold in 1972, the call letters were changed to WLIO-V, but the UHF frequency remained the same.
WIMA radio personality Easter Straker expanded her popular one-hour morning radio show to a live hour-long television program, “Easter Parade.”
Her radio announcer, Clif Willis, continued on her radio program, but Tom became her TV announcer and studio assistant. He’d warm up the small studio audience, set up the props so Easter could do the commercials for Gregg’s Department Store, get the little kids ready for the famed “birthday chair” and do a hundred other things needed for the daily show. He also sang once a week, accompanied by organist Jim Foster.
When I started working at the station as floor director, camera operator and booth announcer, Tom went out of his way to help me and make me feel welcome.
In addition, Tom was the station’s staff announcer, doing all the local studio commercials and hosting weekend movie programs.
Each commercial had a run-through prior to being presented live on the air. But unique to Tom, his rehearsals were special as he always had a joke to deliver before the studio crew, his captive audience. They were never off-color but always funny.
In 1960, Tom was hired for a staff announcing position at Columbus’ largest station, Channel 10, WBNS-TV. At WIMA-TV, Tom was replaced by a very young GI, fresh out of the Army, Chuck Osborne.
I visited Tom at the station shortly after he moved to Columbus. It was a tremendous change, with bigger studios, a larger staff, more professional and not just one but three studio cameras. At first, Tom was the staff booth announcer, reading all of the announcements from a sound-proof booth. Later, he did studio commercials and eventually worked his way into anchoring the news, live in the studio, something he never did before, even in Lima.
The Columbus Dispatch later said of his career, “As an anchor, Tom delivered the news in a straightforward but conversational manner. He was the image that he portrayed in his work, the way he dealt with his life.”
In 1979, after nearly 20 years at WBNS, Tom joined channel 6, WSYX-TV. He was its main anchor and elevated the third-ranked station to No. 1 in Columbus. He stayed there until 1987, retiring after 30-plus years in broadcasting. Living in Upper Arlington, he continued to appear in local TV commercials.
Tom was self-educated, not having the advantage of college, a fact that is unique in broadcasting today. As a Limaite, Tom was perhaps second only to that of Hugh Downs with his broadcast success. But then Hugh attended Bluffton College for one year.
It is sad Tom’s connection is not acknowledged by the local television station’s website or even a county museum display. Hopefully this much deserved recognition will be corrected in the future.
Last Sunday in Columbus, Tom suffered a fatal heart attack. Tom was an uncommon man from a common time. He was 81.