Edith Ryan is now approaching a century of life experiences after turning 99 on Jan. 17. She has experienced the Great Depression, wars, cultural shifts, changing gender roles and a little agricultural town growing into a little city, all from right here in the Yakima Valley.
I’ve known Edith almost my entire life as my next door neighbor and generally thought of her as “Mrs. Ryan,” the lady who always gave out full-size candy bars arranged on a little silver platter each Halloween. But it was only recently that I really got to know her. That happened when I took some time to have a conversation with her as she shared some of her stories.
Edith grew up during the Great Depression, and her family was no stranger to hardships. Her mother, Emaline Harter, was born in a sod hut on the Nebraska prairie and journeyed to the Yakima Valley by wagon as a young girl. Edith’s father, Harold Milne, was an orphan from England living in Alberta, Canada, who rode the rails and ended up in the Yakima Valley, where he met Emaline. Edith’s parents were married in 1916.
Growing up in Selah, Edith had a happy childhood despite the hard times. She loved school and began a year early when her neighbor, a year older than Edith, also entered school. Edith was determined not to be left behind, so her grandmother, who was once a teacher, taught her to read, something young Edith explained to the teacher on the first day she walked into the schoolhouse.
Her childhood summers were filled with camping trips as long as six weeks, and as a teenager she would ride with her father on his motorcycle.
Edith has always had a love for music. Her father was also a music lover, and encouraged anything musical. They were a bit of a family band, with Edith on the piano, her brother on the saxophone, her father on the banjo and her mother on the drums.
But Edith’s real musical passion was the organ.
“That was my real love. I was nuts about the pipe organ,” she said.
It was unthinkable that her family could own one, so she would play at church as much as she could. Later in life, she saw an ad for a kit to build your own electric organ. After a lot of hard work and soldering and wiring, Edith finally had her own organ.
“And, uh, it worked,” she said with a chuckle.
In addition to working agricultural jobs, including packing cherries and hops, Edith went to business college then worked as a secretary and bookkeeper. It was in business college when she met her first fiancé, who was called away to World War II before they were married. Her fiancé was taken as a Japanese prisoner of war, held on a Pacific island and died when the island was bombed by U.S. forces.
Edith was living and working in Yakima at the time, and helped raise money locally for the war effort. During that period, she was renting a room and didn’t have a kitchen, and would go out to get a cup of coffee and a roll each morning.
In 1947, she met Bill Ryan. She was working as a bookkeeper for a fruit inspection company, and Bill worked there, too. He proposed two weeks after they met and they were married in March 1948. They stayed married for 70 years.
“I am very happy with the guy I married,” she said. “Unfortunately, he just didn’t live long enough.”
Together they saved for a piece of land, which at that time was in the country, surrounded by orchards, hop fields and pastures. In 1950, they bought the land and shell of the house, all with cash, and her husband built the interior of the house where they raised their daughter, Kate, and in which Edith still lives in the middle of Yakima.
The Ryans enjoyed square dancing and loved camping and birds; they even bought a piece of land so they would always have a campsite. After Edith retired in the 1980s, they maintained a trail with homemade birdhouses and collected data on the endangered bluebirds there as members of the Bluebird Trail Committee, an offshoot of the Yakima Valley Audubon Society. She also started volunteering at the Yakima Valley Museum, computerizing records. She was still going in every week until last year’s closures due to COVID-19.
When I asked Edith what advice she would share with young people, she said, with a hearty laugh: “Behave yourself.”
As she approaches 100, Edith Ryan shows how essential it is to possess determination.