New London historian Sally Ryan still sharing love of history at age 90
New London — Ask her about the Hurricane of 1938 and Sally Ryan will tell you she remembers it vividly, especially the ride from the newly opened St. Joseph School when her father essentially had to dodge fallen trees on his way back to the family home on Montauk Avenue.
Train service had halted. A fire tore through buildings along Bank Street. She and a group of neighborhood kids walked to the end of Pequot Avenue after the winds had subsided to see boats had washed ashore. She was out of school for two weeks.
Ryan, the city’s first and only municipal historian, has a deep love of local history and has been enthusiastically sharing that history, along with some of her own personal stories, for decades.
She’s not just an expert on the history of New London, “she is New London history,” remarked friend and fellow educator Jean Jordan, who has conducted tours with Ryan of the Ye Antientist Burial Ground, the oldest colonial cemetery in the county.
Ryan celebrated her 90th birthday on Saturday and friends all agree that her continued zest for life, love of teaching and learning have not subsided. Friends and colleagues celebrated with a get-together — a “Sally-bration” — on Saturday at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, where Ryan was surprised by a visit from Mayor Michael Passero, whom she referred to as “the nice young man.”
Passero delivered a proclamation declaring Aug. 15 Sally Ryan Day in New London and said Ryan “embodies our community’s spirit, commitment and involvement over many years.” She has been the city’s historian since 1988.
Ryan was born and raised in New London and taught for nearly three decades at the former Edgerton Elementary School. Before her retirement from the school in 1990 she had started a local history class for adults that has continued through the years and only recently paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Sally Ryan's great gift is that she not only knows New London's history, but that she makes that history engaging and accessible to people who aren't historians,” said Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks. “I can't think of anyone alive today who has done more to deepen New Londoners' understanding of our city."
Ryan has conducted walking tours, classes, lectures, served as a leader at both the Hempsted Houses and New London Landmarks, aided in historical research and is a volunteer docent at the Lyman Allyn.
“Sally Ryan is a true community treasure,” said Suzanne Maryeski, former executive director of the Public Library of New London, where Ryan has taught her popular New London History series program for years.
The class starts with the establishment of the Connecticut colonies and New London’s early years and touches on the Pequot War, Revolutionary War and burning of New London and the importance of whaling to the city, among other topics.
“I think it’s important to know the history of New London to understand where we are today,” Ryan said in a phone conversation from her home at Harbour Towers on Bank Street. “You look around at the beautiful buildings and realize how many of them were put up with money that came from whaling. It certainly influenced the way New London developed.”
Her history class has evolved through the years. When she began teaching, there were no records of anyone from New London being involved in the slave trade.
“Well, we do have records now. There has been much research done in that area. I was wrong and now I definitely talk about the ships that left New London and sailed to Africa and were involved in the slave trade,” she said.
When Maryeski became a docent at Lyman Allyn, she said she joined several of Ryan’s tours celebrating New London history through paintings.
“I was always impressed with the rapt attention students gave to Sally’s conversational style of explaining history. Her decades of teaching experience were much in evidence,” she said.
Ryan is the daughter of Hubert Ryan and Margaret Boylan, and has a host of stories about her own family. Her father, a real estate agent and insurance man who worked on State Street, was a prominent Republican who was elected to represent the city in the state House of Representatives in the 1940s. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a coachman and lived at a home owned by a family on the grounds of what is now Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford.
While she has remained rooted in New London, Ryan is something of a world traveler, visiting numerous countries and she lived for a year in the wilds of Alaska in her younger years.
Her friend and colleague at Lyman Allyn, Margaret Cawley, said Ryan has “hundreds of interests” that include opera, ballet and museums and theater.
“You name the form of entertainment, and more than likely she will attend,” Cawley said. “She may be 90 but she hasn’t slowed down a bit. She’s up for just about anything.”
Ryan said she still gets excited about sharing her knowledge of history and while she may be semi-retired and a bit less mobile than she used to be, she plans to continue for as long as she’s able.