'He wanted to go there. He wanted to see. He wanted to help.'

‘He wanted to go there. He wanted to see.
He wanted to help.’

Forty years ago this November, more than 900 members of a cult led by American Jim Jones died in a mass murder-suicide of historic proportions at a South American jungle compound. It became known as the “Jonestown massacre.” Creighton alumnus and congressman Leo Ryan had been investigating the group, when he was fatally shot by Jonestown gunmen — precipitating Jones’ orders for his followers to drink poison-laced punch. This is Ryan’s story.

By Adam Klinker

By the fall of 1978, a steady stream of constituents and neighbors were coming through the doors and jamming up the phone lines of the offices of California congressman Leo Ryan.

Something was not right around the Bay Area district Ryan represented. It started with the Peoples Temple, a utopian, putatively religious movement and its charismatic leader, Jim Jones, and it was spreading to the jungles of the South American nation of Guyana, where Jones had been, for several years, compelling followers of his movement to establish a socialist paradise far from the prying eyes of his adherents’ suspicious families and the U.S. government.

Ryan listened intently, compassionately, to stories from concerned loved ones who told tales of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, spirited away in the middle of the night. Some had not been heard from in years.

Hearing the stories, Ryan convened meetings with his fellow congressmen and the media. He organized a fact-finding trip to Jonestown, the community taking shape in Guyana around Jones’ vision for a remote, agrarian paradise — a place Jones called “a model of socialism.”

But now, in November 1978, some of the original organizers of the trip were backing out. For despite much of his anti-American rhetoric and the cultish overtones of his movement, Jones was nevertheless an identifiable figure in local, state, even national political circles. He’d had meetings with Vice President Walter Mondale and first lady Rosalyn Carter. He’d welcomed California Gov. Jerry Brown to dinner. He organized enough members of the Peoples Temple to help get George Moscone elected mayor of San Francisco.

While Ryan remained insistent on making the trip, many pointed to the fact that members of the Peoples Temple had left for Jonestown of their own volition. Others said Jones was a misunderstood pioneer in civil rights. He had cultivated a reputation as a forward-thinking proponent of social justice. But the reputation didn’t matter to Ryan. He was going to go to Guyana to see for himself.

With two degrees from Creighton University and a career in public service that ran from dusty schoolrooms in rural Nebraska to the ravaged streets of Watts in Los Angeles to the ice floes off the Canadian coast, Ryan was a person of conviction and action.

When Ryan was killed by members of the Peoples Temple cult, just outside Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978, he was, in the estimation of those who knew him, doing what he did best: discerning truth, promoting justice, helping people. He was, in effect, living out the Creighton credo to the last full measure of devotion.

Leo Joseph Ryan Jr. was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1925, the son of Leo Joseph Ryan Sr. and Autumn Mead Ryan. Both of his parents were newspaper reporters, and his father had also served as an aide to Omaha World-Herald founder Gilbert Hitchcock during a portion of Hitchcock’s two terms as a Nebraska U.S. senator. The elder Ryan also taught Latin and Greek at Creighton after service in France during World War I.

During the Great Depression, the family moved frequently throughout the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, as his parents worked for papers and government agencies in Chicago, New York and Washington. When Ryan was 11, his father died in Boston and his mother packed him off to a series of boarding schools while she served with the New Deal’s emergent Social Security Administration and traveled abroad.

“His childhood was rough,” says Erin Ryan, the youngest of Leo Ryan’s five children. “We never really had a chance to have those conversations, but I think his childhood was what made him so determined in his later life. I think it helped form him first as a great educator and later as a legislator.”

In 1943, Ryan graduated from Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and enrolled in the U.S. Navy’s V-12 officers’ training program. He was assigned to submarine duty and spent the final days of World War II patrolling the Pacific. Honorably discharged in 1946, Ryan returned to Nebraska and, with the help of the G.I. Bill, enrolled at Creighton University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and a master’s degree two years later, both in education. During his time at Creighton, Ryan taught and coached at Waterloo High School just west of Omaha.

After earning his graduate degree, the 26-year-old Ryan took a position as superintendent of schools in the southeastern Nebraska community of Davenport, but he found the post confining and, in 1953, he packed up his family and headed west to the Bay Area, where he got a job teaching English and civics at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California.

“I think he was always proud of his Nebraska roots, and he talked about his Creighton education as being foundational in his life,” says Patricia Ryan, the last of Ryan’s children born in Nebraska, who now lives in California. “But it also led him to wanting to see that his children had a diversity of experiences and had the benefits of seeing a world beyond Nebraska, and that’s what led him out here and, ultimately, into politics, especially politics as he practiced them.”

In California, Ryan quickly earned notice as a committed and compassionate educator, dedicated to his students and to seeing justice in the community. Within his first two years in the Bay Area, he was elected president of a local Democrat club and earned an appointment to the South San Francisco Recreation Commission.

His interest in politics was burgeoning, but he was first and foremost an educator and, in his daughters’ estimation, a Renaissance man.

“He loved music, drama, literature, art, government, politics, history,” Patricia Ryan says. “He read incessantly. Some friends and I took a vacation to Gettysburg once and I remember he just couldn’t wait to get us out there and set the scene. He narrated the whole battle for us. That was Dad.”

“He was a doer,” Erin Ryan says. “He had a gripe once with something the parks department was doing and, the next thing we know, he’s on the parks commission. He identified things he could do, places he could help. And then he went out and did.”

From his parks commission appointment in 1955, Ryan springboarded into a city council seat a year later. He then ran for a seat in the California State Assembly in 1958, but in the heavily Republican stronghold that was the Bay Area of the 1950s, he was narrowly defeated.

In 1960, the nation elected a young, well-spoken, Irish-American, Catholic Navy veteran to the presidency, and Leo Ryan had a new political role model and a vision for where he’d like to take his own career in public service.

“Dad’s idol was John F. Kennedy,” Erin says. “He saw himself in JFK. He saw a different road forward in politics. That charisma that Kennedy exuded, Dad had that.”

In January of 1961, Ryan accompanied the Capuchino High School marching band to Washington, D.C., where it played in Kennedy’s inauguration parade. When he returned to South San Francisco, he assumed the mayoralty, which was rotated among the city council, and in 1962, he decided he’d take another run at the State Assembly. It was a landslide. Ryan became the first Democrat to win a state election in San Mateo County in more than a generation.

“That really kicked it off,” Erin says. “He was a classic example of a person who always looked out for the underserved. His signature line was being a voice for the voiceless, and that’s what he committed himself to do.”

From the outset, Ryan demonstrated he was a politician who could and would think for himself. He was an early advocate for education reform and school vouchers, sometimes to the aggravation of his fellow Democrats. He played the part of skeptic in most floor debates and remained wary of certain state agencies and offices.

“He was always very dubious about what he was told,” says U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who worked for Ryan’s Assembly re-election campaign in 1966, and now holds her own seat in Congress, representing a portion of Ryan’s old district.

“He had a healthy distrust for the bureaucracy. But that’s because he was a learned man. He was a teacher and he was always in that mode. He had to see for himself before he could decide on it, before he could tell his constituents what was happening.”

Speier, who would become Ryan’s legislative aide when he was elected to Congress and would accompany him on the trip to Jonestown, where she herself was wounded, says Ryan would often point to his Creighton education as a motivator for his legislative style.

“He was very proud of being a Creighton alum,” she says. “It was a place that encouraged investigation, that encouraged investigation on behalf of helping people and making the world a better place.”

In the summer of 1965, Los Angeles was convulsed by riots stemming from racial tension between police and African-American residents of the Watts neighborhood. For a week, Watts burned and more than 30 people were killed. In the aftermath, Ryan spent two weeks as a substitute teacher in a high school in the neighborhood, investigating the conditions leading up to the riot.

The decision earned Ryan admiration in some circles, scorn in others. At least one challenger in Ryan’s 1966 re-election campaign said Ryan’s effort was a publicity stunt. Ryan was unfazed by praise or criticism.

“He wanted your side of the story,” Erin says. “It was unusual, even in that day, to have a representative who was willing to take all sides of an argument into consideration and to actively seek people who disagreed with him, but that was what he took to be part of the job.”

When Ryan became chair of an Assembly committee aimed at prison reform, things got even more unusual.

Patricia and Erin Ryan recall their mother waking them and their three siblings early one morning in 1970, putting them in nice clothes and setting out in the family car for Folsom State Prison. Their father had been away for a couple of days but, as a state legislator, the family had grown used to his long absences. Now, he was spending seven days in the prison to research conditions for inmates. Just as in his teaching in Watts, Ryan had decided to see conditions firsthand and had asked to be arrested, charged and sentenced to Folsom, where he received the standard-issue haircut, was strip-searched and had his mugshot taken.

“Like Jonestown, it was another situation where people tried to dissuade him and told him that he was absolutely not going to do it,” Erin says. “But they weren’t going to dissuade him from going to prison any more than they could stop him from going to Jonestown.

“I was in sixth grade and I had to go visit my dad in prison. The interesting thing about it, though, was that Dad developed really close relationships with the men he met there.”

When Ryan left the prison after a seven-day stay, inmates on death row gave him a gift: a chessboard made of cigarette papers and toothpaste. The board had been a cherished item among the inmates, who played the game by shouting out their moves between cells. Ryan was quoted in news reports likening the prison system to a zoo, saying: “Most people don’t realize that when a man goes behind those granite walls, he’s still a human being.”

“It was his way of showing us what public service sometimes looks like,” Patricia says, “that you go to such lengths to get the real, unvarnished story. Right after he came out, he was so emotionally affected by the experience, he didn’t talk for several days. It was traumatic for him and it had a profound impact on his life from that point on.”

Ryan was elected to Congress in 1972 and took to Washington the same inquisitive spirit he’d honed in Sacramento. From the beginning, Ryan proved a formidable presence in the House. In his first term, he stood toe to toe with the CIA while insisting on Congressional oversight on the agency’s operations. He also went to Newfoundland on a fact-finding mission about the seal hunt and became an early legislative proponent of environmentalism and an embryonic organization called Greenpeace.

“He was only in Congress six years,” Speier says. “Look what he did in those six years. What might he have done with more time? Can you even imagine? We live in a better world because of things Leo Ryan did. I wonder what more there could have been.”

Shortly before speaking to Creighton magazine for this story, Erin Ryan received two briefcases from the FBI that had been in storage since her father was killed in Guyana.

One of the briefcases contained pieces of correspondence between her father and one of Jim Jones’ attorneys, Mark Lane. In Lane’s letter, Erin says, the lawyer recites a litany on the supposed persecution of Jones by the American government and advises Ryan against making the trip to Guyana.

“Dad’s response was exactly what you’d expect,” Erin says. “Everyone else who had signed up to go on this trip begged off. But Dad was coming. He told Mark Lane, ‘I just want to talk. I want to hear your side of the story.’ But in the paranoid, drugged-out world of Jim Jones’ mind, this was a threat. If Jim Jones had known what my father was about, had seen how he’d gone on similar missions, I think it might’ve been different.”

The night before he left for Jonestown, as the lone elected official who would go and meet with Jones and the members of the Peoples Temple, Ryan had dinner with Erin, who was living in Washington and attending Georgetown University.

“He was tired and he was recovering from a cold,” Erin remembers. “It was just after the election in 1978 and he always had a cold after every election. I didn’t really know anything much about why he was going or how dangerous it was. I was just happy to have my dad over for dinner. It’s something that didn’t happen a lot. He was a busy man; he was larger than life. That was hard on our family and I always sensed that he felt that pain of being pulled in two directions.”

With Speier, a few members of the media and some concerned relatives of Jonestown residents, Ryan left Washington the morning of Nov. 14, 1978. The Ryan delegation was initially denied access to Jonestown but, three days later, Jones was informed that the congressman was coming to the settlement, one way or another.

On Nov. 17, Ryan flew in to a small airstrip hacked out of the jungle and made his way to the community, which had become home to about 1,000 people.

Things initially seemed to go well. At the same time, several people passed notes to the Ryan delegation, saying they wished to leave Jonestown, and the congressman promised he’d see anyone wanting to return home could go.

Ryan and Speier, with two other members of the delegation, stayed the night in Jonestown. Early the next morning, on Nov. 18, after helping load those Peoples Temple members wanting to leave onto a truck, Ryan said he’d likely deliver a mostly positive report on Jonestown.

The congressman was one of the last to leave Jonestown, staying behind to talk with anyone who wanted to make a statement or who needed his help. By the late afternoon, however, the situation, along with Jones’ stability, had deteriorated. Convinced Ryan, who was now leaving for the airstrip, was at the vanguard of a government conspiracy to violently shut down his jungle experiment, Jones ordered a group of cult members to kill the congressman and all those attempting to leave.

Ryan was shot and killed at the airstrip with four others in the delegation. Speier was shot five times and, with other wounded, waited nearly a full day for help.

Hearing this news, Jones commanded his followers to drink poison. As 909 people followed those orders, it became the single largest loss of civilian American life until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It was fundamental to his job,” says Speier. “He was dedicated to taking care of his constituents and he was not at all reluctant to put himself on the line for that. He wanted to go there. He wanted to see. He wanted to help.”

In 1983, Ryan was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan. In 2017, he was honored, along with former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, survivor of a 2011 assassination attempt, with the naming of the Gabrielle Giffords-Leo J. Ryan Democratic Cloakroom at the House of Representatives.

Both Erin and Patricia Ryan have become leaders in policymaking and the public interest in their own right, spurred on by the memory of their father. Erin, who earned a law degree, works as a consultant for the California State Senate’s insurance committee. Patricia has spent 30 years in behavioral and mental health advocacy, including 12 years as executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. She also served as volunteer president of the board of the Cult Awareness Network.

“Forty years later, it’s still difficult for us, but I can say that I’m proud he was my dad,” Erin says. “I’m proud he did what he did and that he is being remembered as someone who led a life dedicated to the public good.”

“He was a social justice warrior,” Patricia says. “And I’ve always believed his Creighton, Jesuit education gave him the foundation for all of his work in public life.”