The last time I saw Matty Ryan (above right with Eddie Boland) was at Charlie Ryan's mayoral victory celebration in 2003. That night was a far cry from eight years earlier when Charlie lost to Mike Albano. At Charlie's Forest Park headquarters that year the champagne had been served despite Charlie's defeat, but everyone was so dispirited hardly anyone even felt like getting drunk. I may have been one of the exceptions.
As we were leaving that night, suddenly a car festooned with Albano stickers came roaring past Ryan headquarters with tires squealling, the car filled with what looked and sounded like young men. Suddenly two naked rear ends emerged from the front and back windows as people inside taunted "Ha, ha you losers!" As the car sped off a cop who had been inside came out and asked if anyone recognised who was in the car, but no one did.
However, in the days which followed I thought I did recognise in the newspaper some of the people in that car, as Albano announced his appointees, but I couldn't be sure because the photos were frontal ones, and I would've needed to see them from the rear.
But the victory celebration eight years later was much different. The roof was practically blown off the place by the partying crowd, and considering that this was at the John Boyle O'Reilly Club, which has seen some rowdy scenes, that's saying something. However, suddenly someone entered the room, someone of such stature that everyone who saw him had to nudge the person next to them to make sure they saw him too. It was someone no one had seen at political events for a long time, but who had once moved through Valley politics as a giant. It was former Hampden County District Attorney Matthew Ryan.
It impressed me that Matty Ryan had the power, by his mere presense, to momentarily calm that rowdy crowd. But as he and Charlie exchanged greetings, I realized it was more than the fact that no one had seen Matty much in recent years that caused everyone to pause and look. It occurred to me that many people present had never made the connection before that Charlie and Matty were related, and that failure perhaps was not surprising. After all, Charlie was Mr. Reform and Matty was considered Mr. Anti-reform. That Matty had come out to celebrate the fall of the corrupt Albano regime was something that few would have predicted.
But then Matty Ryan was a man of numerous contradictions. In his more than three decades as D.A. he had developed a devoted following as well as fierce critics. There were those who described him as a living legend, while to others he was the embodiment of all that was wrong with Springfield. In the end he was never as good as his supporters claimed, but also not as bad as his critics accused him of being.
Perhaps nothing is more criticized about Ryan's career than his refusal to prosecute the suspected murderer of Danny Croteau, the Reverend Richard Lavigne. But those critics have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and the passage of time. People forget how untouchable the Catholic Church was in those years, and how many would have condemned Ryan for attacking the church - to which Ryan himself belonged. In fact to this day there are those who say that the Croteau case was overblown in the media in order to embarrass the church. Lavigne was also a political figure, especially prominent in the anti-war movement. Had he been prosecuted, it would have splashed mud on an entire young generation of aspiring Democrat Party leaders, many of whom went on to become city councilors, mayors and beyond.
The Croteau murder also took place in an era of high homophobia. Trying the case would have brought out information about the victim's sexuality that would have been devastating to the family if revealed in public. Do any of these things mean Ryan should not have gone ahead with the prosecution anyway, and disgraced the church, subjected the victim to homophobic hate and destroyed a whole generation of the political party of which Ryan himself was a member?
Yes, despite these risks Ryan was still wrong. Danny Croteau was a victim of an evil web of hypocricy and denial in a crime that still cries out for justice. But it would have taken an extraordinary person to face the firestorm that such a prosecution would have caused, with no guarantee that in the end Lavigne would have been convicted. That Ryan was not the superman who could face all that may show that he was weak, and that he was human but not necessarily that he was evil.
Matty Ryan was also criticized for his alleged "mob connections" and in a sane world he should never have kept the company he sometimes did. But there was a weird libertarian sense in which his mob friendships made sense. In a world where the drug trade is forced underground by its illegality, it is difficult to have any control over it. It was said that Ryan had a deal with the mob that as long as they kept to the shadier side of business, like gambling and drugs and loan sharking, he would look the other way on some things, provided they stayed out of City Hall and didn't sell heroin. Of course heroin came in anyway through non-mob sources, but it was much less prevalent and the mob was unable to get their hands on public funds.
Once Matty retired, the streets were flooded with heroin, and it was through mob wiretaps that the corruption probes of the last ten years reached into City Hall, where the mob had quickly began infiltrating after Ryan was gone.
Ironically it was not any of these alleged sins that caused Matty Ryan to retire. In the end, Ryan's brand of blunt, in your face advocacy had become considered old fashioned. With the arrival of the era of District Attorneys with blow-dry haircuts and focus group tested campaigns, someone like Matty had become slightly embarrassing. It wasn't the scandals that led to the conclusion that Matty should go. It was the sense that his crusty style had become "unprofessional."
So the passing of Matty Ryan is rightly called the end of an era. We are unlikely to see his like again. In some ways we are better off for that, but we have lost something too.
In Hamp Windows
For enlightened bumpers.
Elvis in Faces.
It's a new dawn.
As promised, something from Northampton's Lookstock - a killer version of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (photo of the sky over Lookstock by Greg Saulmon)