When Howard Allen Ryan was growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, he was convinced he could go down the chimney of an outdoor barbecue in a friend’s backyard, just like Santa Claus.

Later, after the Fire Department had been called to remove him from the chimney, and after the episode was written up in the Boston newspapers, he concluded he was no Santa Claus, according to his wife, Dianne.

But to family, friends and colleagues, Ryan was so much more — husband, father, business owner, mentor, leader and philanthropist in central Maine.

H. Allen Ryan in 2007.

Ryan died Saturday following a cancer diagnosis. He was 77.

Ryan was known to many as the president of NorthCenter Food Service, now NorthCenter-Performance Foodservice, the wholesale food service distribution center he built after buying the food distribution business from Joseph Kirschner Co. in 1982.

He earned recognition as a businessman, having been named U.S. Small Business Administration Small Business Person of the Year in 1987, and Entrepreneur of the Year by the Finance Authority of Maine the following year.

Reared in Massachusetts, Ryan fell in love with Maine while attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick. While still in college, he and Dianne were married. They met in high school and she attended Bates College in Lewiston because Bowdoin at that time only admitted men.

“He never really blew his own horn,” Dianne Ryan said. “He did like his Lexus but he never had to impress anyone.”

Ryan’s children say he taught them important lessons about how to treat other people, balancing work and family life and keeping one’s word.

Tracy Murray is the oldest of Ryan’s four children and his only daughter.

“When my daughter was a baby, she was diagnosed with epilepsy,” Murray said. “She was very sick.”

It was a hard time, she said, because she was discouraged and did not know why that had happened.

“He let me know that life is not perfect, but you will get through this, and she will be OK,” Murray said. “He just gave me so much strength, but that he was there for me and for her and my family when we really needed him. Those were some very dark days because we didn’t know what her future would be like. Through the years, she’s had a lot of challenges, but he’s always been so supportive. He’s just always, always been there for us, and for her.”

Ryan’s wife, Dianne, said her husband was able to give each of their children the advice and support each needed.

H. Allen Ryan Courtesy photo

Michael Ryan, 45, said when he first went away to college, he was pretty sure he did not want to stay.

“I wanted to come home pretty quickly,” Michael Ryan said. “But he said, ‘No, stay there.’ That was the best advice, to stick it out, buddy. I am very happy he made me stay, and it made a difference in my life. I fight a little bit harder for things because of that.”

For Stephen Ryan, 53, his father’s most-valued support came when he graduated from Bowdoin College — alma mater for both his father and grandfather — and wanted to move to China.

“(He taught me to) take chances in life, knowing that sometimes you will succeed and sometimes you will fail,” Stephen Ryan said. “But always to learn what you can and take the best from the experiences, and try to apply it to what you do in life.”

He credited his father with instilling in him the confidence and sense of adventure to try to get by in a foreign country with little savings for six years.

For Andrew Ryan, 46, his father was the most-generous and funniest man he knew, who touched the lives of people across the country.

He cared particularly those at the Guadalupe Center of Immokalee, Florida, Andrew Ryan said. The center offers educational programs to the children of migrant workers from Latin America.

“He cared about where they lived and what kind of education they were getting — the after-school programs,” he said.

His interests extended past his family and his work. In Augusta, for example, he helped found the Augusta West Side Neighborhood Association.

H. Allen Ryan, one of the founders of the Augusta West Side Neighborhood Association, on Oct. 5, 1986.

He also had a lifelong interest in education, serving on the board of trustees of Bowdoin College, and of Thomas College, where he devoted a great deal of his time, treasure and talent.

Ryan realized that while he and his classmates had to leave Maine to find jobs, many of Thomas College’s students remained in the state.

“He was very proud of his alma mater and served on its board for years,” Thomas College President Laurie LaChance said Monday. “But as he purchased and grew his business in Augusta, he said, ‘I will always love (Bowdoin), but I grew my business on the backs of Thomas grads.’ And so he was very grateful for that and he realized how important Thomas was to feeding the professional workforce of this region.”

LaChance said Ryan joined the Thomas College board of trustees in 1994, a pivotal time when the college was fighting for its survival.

“He was a foundational piece of the board,” LaChance said.

While on the board, on which he continued to serve until his death, Ryan put in place a structure that led the maturation of the board and how it conducted its business, she said.

“He helped us rationalize it and professionalize it,” LaChance said. “He just played a pivotal role in guiding this organization through very turbulent times and helping us to grow, mature and gain stature as a college in every way.”

The college’s baseball field and tennis court are named for him, and the college in 2014 named its business school for him.

H. Allen Ryan, left, Diane Ryan, United Way of Kennebec Valley Executive Director Rob Gordon, Nancy Shuman and Charlie Shuman at the podium during the United Way’s annual kickoff breakfast Sept. 15, 2016, at the Augusta Civic Center.

While he lived in Augusta, Ryan involved himself in community activities and organizations, including the Augusta Board of Trade, where he served as president, and in fundraising efforts for the Kennebec Valley YMCA and United Way, among others.

“He set the standard in terms of being a business leader in the way he went about doing business and supporting business and the community,” Mark Johnston said.

Johnston, who retired as the president and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank, worked with Ryan on a range of projects, including building the new Cony High School, whose auditorium bears his name, and the cancer center at the MaineGeneral Medical Center, for which he helped fundraise.

And when he saw something that needed to be done, he would figure out how to make it happen.

One such project was water quality in Cobbosseecontee Lake.

“He was not just involved,” Johnston said. “He was an instigator in getting the group formed.”

Ryan asked Johnston to come to a meeting, and brought him and several others by boat to somebody’s dock, where that meeting was taking place. From that meeting grew the Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed.

“You might say I was a victim of his enthusiastic support of something he wanted to happen,” Johnston said. “His legacy was being willing to take the bull by the horns and, when there’s a need, making something happen.”


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