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Richard Ryan, longtime curator of Walt Whitman Birthplace, dies at 80

Richard Ryan, the longtime curator at the Walt

Richard Ryan, the longtime curator at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, in an undated photo. Credit: Ryan family

Richard Ryan, the longtime curator at the Walt Whitman Birthplace whose research helped preserve the poet’s Long Island legacy, died on Dec. 13.

Ryan joined the Walt Whitman Birthplace in 1987 serving as curator for the Huntington museum and literary center for the poet and onetime schoolteacher.

"He was basically the institutional memory for the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association," said the center's executive director, Cynthia Shor.

Genevieve Ryan said her husband identified with Whitman and admired him immensely, and especially loved the poet's most famous work, "Leaves of Grass."

"My husband was a very simple man and Walt Whitman was intricate but also believed in the simple things in life," Genevieve Ryan said. "He was just intrigued by the style of Walt Whitman and the way he led his life."

Among Ryan's contributions to the Whitman Birthplace were writing narratives for tour guides, managing exhibits and keeping track of Whitman’s descendants, many of whom are living on Long Island today.

He also helped develop the furnishing plan to reflect the Whitman family’s agrarian lifestyle. They lived there from 1816 until 1823, according to the association’s website.

Richard Ryan was 80 when he died at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson, surrounded by family, from complications of interstitial lung disease.

He was born and raised in Flushing, Queens in 1940 and went on to graduate from the Catholic University of America in 1968 with a degree in history, according to his wife. He took a job as a middle school teacher in the Three Village School District and through friends met Genevieve, an elementary teacher in the district.

He soon found teaching didn’t suit him and went to work for Old Bethpage Village Restoration before the site — which features historic buildings situated to look like an old farming village — opened in 1970.

"He wasn’t a teacher. He was a storyteller," Genevieve Ryan said.

The couple lived in Coram for a few years before buying the Stony Brook home where they raised their two daughters.

His many interests included Walt Whitman, the American Revolution, maritime history and Alexander Hamilton, although he did not see the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical about one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., his wife said. He preferred to read about history and would acquire antique books, scouring them for hours to learn everything he could about figures of the past.

One of his greatest joys was a sailboat he commissioned to be built as a replica of an early-19th century craft. His wife recalled how the family brought Ryan home from the hospital for Thanksgiving dinner and he went to see the vessel, named FANCYNY, for what he knew would be the last time.

In addition to his wife he is survived by a sister, Catherine Sanial, in Westchester, two daughters, Caroline Ryan of Sound Beach and Susan Dick of Patchogue, and three grandchildren. A funeral Mass was held at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Setauket on Dec. 21.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated Alexander Hamilton's role in the U.S. government.

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