If there were a Mt. Rushmore dedicated solely to University presidents, the debate regarding which four administrators deserve a spot could get intense. Truman has been fortunate to have many exceptional leaders. If the decision were put to a vote, one name that would be near the top of almost all ballots would be Walter H. Ryle III. The longest-serving president in school history, he oversaw a period of exceptional growth in terms of students, employees and infrastructure. With all his accomplishments, to one alumnus and former faculty member, President Ryle was simply “dad.”
Walter H. Ryle IV, known to family and friends as “Walt,” was only five years old during the first year of his father’s presidency. At the time, he did not fully grasp his father’s importance to the University.
“As a child, I wasn’t really conscious of my dad’s position,” Walt said. “I don’t remember being any different than any of the other kids or being treated differently.”
Walt credits his father’s job for keeping him “simmered down” when he was a young fraternity man on campus, but he never felt any pressure due to his family name or reputation.
“My dad and mother both were really good parents in that they gave me a lot of rope,” Walt said “They didn’t try to mold me in any way that I was ever conscious of, other than their good example.”
President Ryle may have been too busy to meddle in his son’s business. Much of what the University is today is owed in great part to his vision. Under his leadership, the school saw the construction of, or addition to, more than 20 buildings on campus. The number of faculty more than quadrupled on his watch, and the student body jumped from 668 students in his first year in 1937 to 5,320 by his final year in 1967. With 30 years on the job, even just his major achievements would be too numerous to list.
Perhaps his most important contribution was his establishment of a general education program consisting of 64 hours of study on a broad range of subjects, or as President Ryle described it, “an education useful to all who possess it, at all times, and under all circumstances.” It was essentially the forerunner to what would become the liberal arts foundation of the University decades later. Although President Ryle has a reputation as a staunch advocate for teacher education, Walt believes his father would wholeheartedly support the path the University has taken since he was at the helm.
“He was so committed to teacher education that people decided he would be unhappy about the shift away from that. People say that, and there’s just no basis for it,” Walt said. “I know he was very supportive of President McClain’s vision of a state-supported liberal arts school.”
President Charles McClain was one person who realized the full extent of Ryle’s importance to the University. In the introduction to Ryle’s 1972 book, “Centennial History of the Northeast Missouri State Teachers College,” McClain wrote “Dr. Ryle had the foresight and the judgement necessary for effective planning during a critical period of rapid growth and expansion. A great measure of today’s success of the institution is possible because of the groundwork laid by Dr. Walter H. Ryle. We are indebted to him, and his name deserves to rank on the honor roll of illustrious American educators.”
In addition to having a personal family connection to President Ryle, Walt is in a good position to assess his father’s influence on the University. He eventually served on the faculty under his father and was employed by Truman until 1999. A professor emeritus of history, Walt was in the classroom for nearly 40 years. Among other duties, he served on the undergraduate council, as well as more than 20 years on the University athletic committee. That experience allowed him to transition into the role of athletic director in 1994, a position he occupied for five years. In 2012, he was inducted into both the MIAA and Truman Athletic halls of fame.
Walt has remained in Kirksville since he retired from the University. He still owns a family farm and has been breeding sheep since 1970. He also stays active in the community and has been a Rotary member for 56 years.
“In my opinion, this is a much better community than I remember from my childhood,” Walt said. “The community has had good leadership and steady growth.”
In total, the Ryle family has been associated with the University in one form or another for nearly 100 of its 150 years. President Ryle and his wife were both alumni, as well as Walt, his wife, Connie, and their son Wesley. Another son, Douglas, was a member of the ROTC faculty for several years. As the University prepares to celebrate its sesquicentennial, Walt is sure his father would approve of where it is today.
“He would be very proud of Truman’s standing, and he would be proud of the administrative leadership that it has enjoyed and the excellence of its faculty and student body,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt about that.”