TITLE: President and Treasurer
FUNDING AREAS: Education, arts, Roman Catholic concerns, and youth services
IP TAKE: Causes that help children with disabilities hit home for the Ryans, whose son overcame his disabilities to graduate from Notre Dame. A good number of Ryan Foundation grants go toward the arts, but children and education are the foundation's true and long-lasting passions.
PROFILE: "How do you measure your life?" Shirley Ryan has asked. "You measure your life by how many people you've helped."
This articulate, nationally recognized civic leader and award-winning philanthropic giant typically doesn't do interviews. But it's not because she's shy. It's because she believes her quietly done work, such as the Pathways Awareness Foundation she started, speaks for her.
"It's not about 'I' or 'me,'" she says. "If you take the 'I' out of team, it's incredible how much you can get done. We're here as a community to share knowledge."
To that end, she has served on boards, founded programs, or sponsored the construction of new buildings for numerous organizations and cultural institutions throughout Chicagoland, including the Lyric Opera, the Art Institute, Northwestern University (her alma mater), WTTW, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In addition to traditional grantmaking, the Ryans started a scholarship fund that allows low-income youth to attend Northwestern without taking out student loans.
The touchstone you hear over and over from Ryan, whose husband, Patrick G. Ryan, represented Chicago on a world stage in the Olympic bid competition, is that knowledge empowers. "Every child can learn and has the right to develop to their highest potential," she says.
At the Art Institute, she empowers children to learn about art. At the Lyric Opera, where she has served as president of the Women's Board, she empowers new generations of up-and-coming singers with world-class training. At Northwestern, she empowers students with knowledge that will allow them to make a better world.
And she empowers young parents to raise healthy children through the Pathways Awareness Foundation. More than 400,000 babies in the United States are at risk of developing motor delay each year, so the foundation teaches parents how to recognize early signs and address them. Shirley cofounded and has chaired the Pathways outpatient pediatric clinic since 1985. She kept up with modern trends and started a website for Pathways in 1996. It provides content to the American Academy of Pediatrics for its continuing medical education programs, and the foundation's activities are guided by a medical roundtable composed of the best pediatric practitioners in Chicago.
It all started because Ryan's son, Corbett, overcame disabilities to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. But "to emphasize my son, it's not the perspective of the parents who are walking this walk, the children who have a right to learn," Ryan says.
Her work, understanding, and empathy in this regard have led to two U.S. presidents appointing her to an advisory role at the National Council on Disability in Washington.
When she's not busy working for her own foundations, she's also serving on the board of the University of Notre Dame and fulfilling membership roles at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Alain Locke Charter Academy. Her walls are filled with a steady stream of awards and honors from Northwestern University, the Harvard Club of Chicago, and Voices of Illinois Children.
In the end, the greatest gift, for Ryan, is having the opportunity to give. "Giving is receiving and vice versa," she says. "It's a privilege."