In his eight years as Secretary of State from 1990 to 1998, George H. Ryan established some of the most influential library programs in the history of the State Library. His Live & Learn initiative remains a hallmark of library development in Illinois.

Born Feb. 23, 1934, in Maquoketa, Iowa, Ryan as a small child moved with his family to Kankakee, Illinois, where his father opened a pharmacy. George followed in his father’s footsteps, working in the family drugstore as a youth before a two-year stint in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956, including 13 months in Korea. After returning home, he earned a degree in pharmacy from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, in 1961. Ryan and  his wife, Lura Lynn, were married on June 10, 1956. The couple has six children. 1

Starting in 1968, Ryan served on the Kankakee County Board of Supervisors before winning a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1972. He later served two terms as House Republican leader from 1977 to 1980 and was House Speaker in 1981 and 1982. 2

In 1982, Ryan was elected Lieutenant Governor under Governor James Thompson, a position he held for the last two of Thompson’s four terms in office. In 1990, Ryan won election as Secretary of State, but his relationship  with Illinois libraries began inauspiciously with a large cut in direct state grants. He cured the tensions with Live & Learn, a highly successful plan to derive alternative funding for library construction and improvement projects that solidified Ryan’s place as a supporter of Illinois libraries. 3

As State Librarian, Ryan also was a champion of library technology, including access to the Internet, and promoted programs to help libraries purchase more computers. Among his successful programs was the Access Local Library (ALLY) program and the CLUE e-mail system that helped libraries transmit and receive information more quickly.

In other duties as Secretary of State, Ryan was a staunch supporter of organ donation and helped lower the limit for drinking and driving from a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .10 to .08. As a result, Secretary Ryan received major awards from such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Commission Against Drunk Driving. 4

Ryan was elected Governor in 1998 in a narrow victory over his Democratic rival, Glenn Poshard. Ryan’s running mate, Corrine Wood, was the first woman elected to either of the top two positions in Illinois government. As Governor, Ryan implemented Illinois FIRST, a five-year, $12 billion program to improve the state’s infrastructure. A total of 10,000 projects in all 102 counties of the state were created, along with $7 billion in additional wages. 5

In addition, Ryan sought to expand the state’s economy by establishing stronger diplomatic relations with Cuba. In October 1999, Ryan became the first United States Governor to visit the Castro regime in Cuba. Ryan also declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in 2000, winning him praise from Amnesty International and other humanrights groups. 6

Ryan’s term as Governor was marred by charges of widespread corruption, and he announced his retirement from politics prior to the 2002 primary election. He was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2006, and sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

  1. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 349-350; Monroe & Ryan, A Social History of the Illinois Executive Mansion, 169, 171.
  2. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 349-351.
  3. Illinois Insight Fall 1994, 1, April/May 1993, 1, 3; Interview with Bridget Lamont.
  4. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 351; Illinois Insight Spring 1995, 1, Winter 1993-94, 1, 3, Summer 1995, 1-2.
  5. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 352, 377; Monroe & Ryan 166.
  6. Monroe & Ryan 166-168.