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Trustee Emerita Nancy Ryan Remembered for Skill, Courage, Humor

Nancy Ryan. 

Trustee Emerita Nancy Ryan, president of a successful media buying firm and novelist, died Thursday, August 25, after a long battle with Multiple System Atrophy.

Ryan served on Emerson College’s Board of Trustees twice, joining first in 1996, and then again in 2007. In addition to providing a wealth of insight to her colleagues on the board, she was known for being accessible to faculty, students, and staff who needed her help. For her many contributions to Emerson, she was conferred with emerita status in 2015.

“Nancy Ryan was a great friend of Emerson College,” Trustee Chair Jeff Greenhawt ’68 wrote in an email. “During her time on the Board of Trustees, she was passionate about working on committees that involved the student body, often personally hosting lunches and dinners where she met with students.”

“Nancy will be missed, and on a personal note, [wife and member of the Board of Overseers] Jan and I lost a dear friend,” Greenhawt wrote.

For nearly 30 years, Ryan helped her clients achieve their marketing goals through Pro Media, the firm she built. Later, she became an independent consultant, connecting advertisers with media opportunities in a swiftly changing environment.

Trustee Emeritus Larry Rasky ’78 said that, at Pro Media’s height, it was the largest media buying firm in New England, and the largest woman-owned company in Boston.

Rasky, chairman and CEO of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, called Ryan “one of the bravest people I knew.”

“To run a business in the advertising world as Nancy did, and to make it as successful as she did back in those times of male dominance was really incredible,” he said. “It took toughness and great business acumen, and she had all of those attributes, not to mention [she was] just an incredibly hard worker who provided a great service for her clients.”

As the media landscape changed, Ryan had to constantly adapt in order to meet her clients’ needs.

“It took [such] guts to hang in there,” he said.

Trustee Linda Schwartz ’67 was head of development for the Anti-Defamation League in New England when Ryan was one of the first women honored with the ADL’s Torch of Liberty Award, for her work to advance women professionally.

Schwartz said Ryan was “brilliant” at media buying and had an incredibly creative mind.

Ryan followed her passions outside of marketing, as well. She published two novels, The Disappearance of Olivia (2011) and Where Is Olivia? (2013), and made her own jewelry.

Even in her final illness, which took so much from her, it didn’t take her dynamic personality, Schwartz said.

She was serious when the situation called for it, and silly when it didn’t, Schwartz said.

“She was hysterical,” Schwartz said. “Her mind was always going, and she was so creative.”

She also was unbelievably generous.

“She would barely know you and say, ‘All right, I’m taking you out for your birthday,’” she recalled.

Trustee Emeritus Jim Coppersmith, LLD ’98 was a recipient of that generosity. He and Ryan would often talk about Winston Churchill, whom Coppersmith greatly admires.

“In my [home] I have a photo of Winston Churchill… and it’s signed by him,” Coppersmith said. “That was a gift from Nancy.”

Coppersmith said Ryan specialized in buying advertisements for political candidates, and was a “very astute businesswoman” who paved the way for other women executives. On top of that, was “almost like a kid sister” to him.

“She was a wonderful, wonderful friend, in spite of what they talked about in When Harry Met Sally,” said Coppersmith, referencing the Nora Ephron film in which Harry claims men and women can never really be friends.

Former Emerson College President Jackie Liebergott called Ryan “the personification of joie de vivre.

“She brought sparkle to the College and the Board, and to all who knew her,” Liebergott said. “Her media background aided us in decision making, and her jewelry making made us shine.

Trustee Chairman Jeff Greenhawt said Ryan and her husband, Barry O’Brien ’70, who is an alumnus and former Board of Overseers member, helped a great number of Emersonians over the years, and that Ryan “truly loved the College.”

Per Ryan’s wishes, there will be no funeral service, but she requested that there be a celebration for friends and family in Boston. In collaboration with O’Brien, the College will organize a memorial gathering during the fall semester.

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