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Country boy developed two sides as a city copper




12-6-1920 3-1-2012

INSPECTOR "J. J." Ryan cut a conspicuous figure on the Victoria Police parade ground on a hot September day in 1974, wearing a brown suit and sporting a trilby in a sea of blue uniforms. Always a snappy dresser, he was there to be presented with the Valour Award, the force's highest commendation for bravery.

The award, for arresting a 20-year-old drug addict armed with a semi-automatic weapon in a foiled chemist robbery, was the highpoint of a long and successful career that spanned 40 years he rose from constable to chief superintendent by the time he retired in 1980.

J. J., also known as Jim, was born to Frances and John Ryan outside the small Riverina town of Berrigan, the youngest of 10 children. He was the only one to receive a year 10 education, with the Marist Brothers at Kilmore.

The school was known as a cradle of the priesthood, but J. J. obstinately dashed his mother's hope that he would enter holy orders. Instead, he returned to the family's wheat and sheep farm, Clondara, to work with his father and six brothers.

As well as wheat and sheep, the family raised chickens and pigs for their own consumption the women also raised turkeys for the Christmas market.

They ploughed with horses and J. J. was well known as a driver of teams of horses.

Just before the Depression, grain buyers were offering several shillings a bushel for Riverina wheat but his father decided to hold out for a better price. The crash changed everything and he was lucky to get sixpence a bushel.

J. J. enjoyed farm life and spent much of his youth with his horse, dog and gun roaming around the property. He earned a few bob shooting rabbits for the felt-hat trade in Melbourne. Foxes were another popular target.

His father helped some of his children on to nearby properties one of these farms, Cashel, is still in his brother Brose Ryan's family. J. J. and his brother John were the last two siblings left at Clondara when he decamped with the Light Horse Militia as war loomed.

He trained around the country with other young lads, and ended up joining the police by accident. While with the militia in Geelong, a friend said that he was travelling to Melbourne to join the force and would J. J. like to come along? Thinking this a bit of craic, he agreed J. J. was accepted, his friend wasn't.

J. J. didn't tell many stories from his time in the police force, but the few he did recount were worth it.

He was one of the last recruits to live in the police barracks at Russell Street. In 1939, the force was run along military lines, with room inspections and reveille calls a regular imposition on the young constables' mornings.

Policing in the 1940s was very different from today. On one occasion after he arrested a man for rape, he dinked the offender back to the station on the handlebars of his police pushbike.

As a young constable on the beat in Carlton, he became friendly with Jimmy Watson, who ran the most famous wine bar in the area. Occasionally, on hot days, Watson would slip the young country copper a sauternes and soda, and when one day Watson complained that a feral tom cat was causing havoc in the lane behind the wine bar, J. J. offered to "fix" the animal for him.

"Bring me a hessian bag and a knife and I'll do the rest," he told Watson.

In no time he had the cat in the bag, gripped between his knees, and removed its tackle with a quick, if unkind, cut.

Watson took some time to get his chin off the floor.

While stationed at Footscray police station, J. J. worked with the famous Captain Blood, Jack Dyer of Richmond Football Club fame. He took great pleasure in retelling how Dyer would have the station in fits of laughter with his telephone answering technique, "Dyer here". (Run the words together they sound like an unpleasant stomach complaint.)

In the 1970s, J. J. was working with the criminal investigation branch (CIB) at Malvern police station. One day a call came in about a bomb threat at St Kevin's College in Toorak. J. J. took charge of the operation and interviewed the concerned principal of the college. For some reason, the principal accused him of not taking the situation seriously enough an opinion the principal had to retract when the policeman informed him that as two of his three sons were students at the school, he was hardly likely to be blase about the situation. He kept a cool head at all times.

When J. J. returned to Russell Street headquarters, this time in plain clothes, he was an inspector and later chief inspector in the CIB. He became a regular source for the city's crime reporters and was often quoted in newspapers and interviewed on television news.

He was also instrumental in developing anti-terrorist protocols for the state, and was a member of the official police protection unit for the visit of the Crown Prince of Japan in the 1970s. Having lived through World War II, he was not forgiving of the Japanese and no doubt found the assignment hard to stomach.

However, there was another side to his policing helping young people who had acted foolishly and found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

His parish priest, Father Phil Smith, would regularly send worried parents and sheepish youths to J. J. for advice.

Many times he stood as a character witness for young people who would otherwise have ended up in jail. The long list of those he helped included a young man who, under the dual influence of wine and bad company, thought it would be a good idea to flash an Easter Sunday congregation mid-Mass!

A decorated police officer in full regalia makes a formidable ally in court. He was greatly annoyed when he had to retire at the mandated age of 60 as he felt he had many years of service left in him.

He spent his last four years in charge of "Y" district, one of the larger policing districts in the state, based at Nunawading. The district took in Healesville and the eastern hills, and J. J. led many combined emergency operations during the bushfire season. He was also frequently interviewed on TV news about bushfire precautions and evacuation.

After he retired, J. J. returned to the land, running a small hobby farm at Carrajung in Gippsland, mostly raising sheep and Black Angus cattle. He was also actively involved in the Catholic Church throughout his life, particularly as an office holder in the fraternity the Knights of the Southern Cross.

Early in his retirement, he was diagnosed with cancer and had four separate episodes over the next 30 years. He finally succumbed to a blood disorder at Cabrini Hospital, aged 91.

J. J. is survived by his wife, Edna, children Colleen, Michael, Chris (SC), Dan and Kathy, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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