Ellen Ryan, 78, of Havertown, an athlete, coach, and administrator who was instrumental in developing the women's athletics program at St. Joseph's University, died Sunday, Oct. 28, of respiratory failure at her home.
During a 37-year career at the university, Miss Ryan worked in the athletics department, serving as a head coach for various female Hawks teams. She moved to the administrative side and went on to become associate athletic director and senior women's administrator before retiring in 2011.
"Ellen was a Hall of Fame athlete and administrator, but an even better person," said the school's former longtime athletic director, Don DiJulia. "She left her mark on the history of the university. A real impact player. Gone from sight, but not forgotten."
Miss Ryan started out at St. Joseph's in 1973-74 as head coach of the school's first intercollegiate women's basketball team. She led the Hawks to a 9-2 record. Following that season, Miss Ryan took a year away from Hawk Hill, then returned in the fall of 1975 as women's athletics coordinator. She also coached the women's tennis team in 1976, leading the Hawks to a 12-6 record.
Miss Ryan was coordinator of women's athletics for six years before being named assistant athletics director in 1981-82. After 21 years in that job, she became the associate athletics director for women's varsity sports, serving for nine years, the university said.
Under Miss Ryan's guidance, the women's athletics program grew from three teams in the early 1970s to its current slate of 10 varsity sports teams. Under her tenure, the St. Joseph's women's teams captured six Atlantic 10 Conference titles and earned a total of 2,091 victories, the school said.
"She knew how to get things done and get them done correctly and with class," said her brother, Thomas F. Ryan. "She was the perfect one to get women's sports off the ground."
The women's basketball program totaled more than 800 victories and made 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, the university said. She had a hand in hiring former head coaches Theresa Grentz and Jim Foster, former assistant coach and player Muffet McGraw, and former assistant Geno Auriemma.
In 1999, St. Joseph's honored Miss Ryan as a member of the inaugural class of the school's Athletics Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 2003 and the St. Joseph's Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.
In 2011, the year Miss Ryan retired, the university christened the field hockey team's new turf-covered playing surface, on the former site of Episcopal Academy, as the Ellen Ryan Field.
"When you think of women's athletics at St. Joseph's, the first name you think of is, and should be, Ellen Ryan," said DiJulia. "We hope that by putting her name on this field, the university can honor her contributions now and forever."
"I was thrilled when I was informed that the hockey field was being named for me," Miss Ryan said at the time. "I've had so many wonderful experiences over my 37 years at St. Joseph's, but the naming of the field is the ultimate compliment."
Born in Overbrook, Miss Ryan was the daughter of Anthony J. and Kathryn Ryan. She was one of nine children who grew up in a large house at 66th Street and Woodbine Avenue in Overbrook, not far from the St. Joseph's campus. "It was comfortable and fun, and we had a giant summer home in Longport, N.J.," her brother said. "We were very fortunate."
She graduated from what is now Merion Mercy Academy and spent 16 years as athletic director and head coach of four sports at the Country Day School of the Sacred Heart before joining the St. Joseph's sports staff.
An accomplished athlete, Miss Ryan was a three-time World Basketball Athletic Association All-American while playing for Merion Mercy and captured a pair of South Jersey Open Tennis championships in the early 1970s during summers in Margate.
Miss Ryan lived in Overbrook until 1984, when she moved in with her sister, Patty, and their parents, in Wynnewood. After her sister died in 2006, Miss Ryan moved to Havertown.
She doted on her 24 nieces and nephews. "She was spectacularly generous to her brothers and sisters and her nieces and nephews," her brother said. "Ellen took care of people. She made sure that when her nephews and niece went down the Shore for Senior Week, they had some green stuff in their pockets to cover it."
Her brother said Miss Ryan attended Mass daily. "The Jesuits and the Sisters of Mercy meant the world to her," he said.
In addition to her brother and many nieces and nephews, Miss Ryan is survived by three brothers and three sisters.
A 10:30 a.m. Funeral Mass will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, 240 Haverford Rd., Wynnewood. Burial is private.