James T. Ryan, of Lansdowne, 71, a labor educator and social justice activist, died of cancer Tuesday at home.

For 26 years, Dr. Ryan was director of the Training and Upgrading Fund of District 1, Local 199C of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, AFL-CIO. The fund was created in 1974 in a collective-bargaining agreement between the union and nine Philadelphia hospitals. Its purpose is to provide educational benefits to assist union members and the community to upgrade job skills and to keep pace with increasing technological demands. Today, 55 employers contribute to the fund, which provides scholarship programs.

Dr. Ryan joined the fund as an instructor and administrator in 1974. After retiring as director in 2002, he continued to work with the fund on a part-time basis.

"Jim's death was the biggest loss to the labor movement since the death of Cesar Chavez," said Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, who is also president of the Philadelphia local. "His vision for the training fund and labor was outstanding," Nicholas said, "His sense of humor, brilliant mind, and his unwavering commitment to worker education will be sorely missed."

It was Cesar Chavez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association, who inspired Dr. Ryan to devote himself full time to the labor movement, his wife Dee Redden Ryan said. The couple met while organizing boycotts for the United Farm Workers in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. They married in 1978.

He contributed numerous letters to the editor on education, labor rights and social justice, his wife said. Dr. Ryan grew up in West Philadelphia and Wynnewood and graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia. He earned a bachelor's degree from Villanova University and a doctorate in education administration from Michigan State University.

He loved family vacations at the Jersey Shore, working in his yard, and home-improvement projects, his wife said. He was an avid reader and enjoyed current events, history, and learning about South American cultures especially Peru, she said.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Ryan is survived by daughters Maria and Teresa; a son, Ramon; and a grandson.

A funeral service will be at 11 a.m. today at Stretch Funeral Home, 236 Eagle Rd., Havertown. Friends may call at 9:30 a.m. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple Township.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.