Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009 | 1 a.m.
Catharine Ryan of San Francisco will celebrate a century of living on Aug. 31.
One hundred years ago the world was a different place. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed Feb. 12; on March 4 President Taft was inaugurated; the Queensboro Bridge opened March 30; Joan of Arc was beatified in Rome April 19; the U.S. mint issued the first Lincoln penny Aug. 7, and the U.S. Navy began building a base at Pearl Harbor that would become a target less than 40 years later. And on Aug. 31, 1909, at their home in Oconto Falls, Wis., Thomas Daniel Ryan Jr. and his wife, Nora, welcomed their first child, a baby daughter they named Catharine.
Catharine's father, Papa, was a dentist whose father came from Ireland and whose mother was born in Ohio. Her mother, Mama, was a former schoolteacher, who was born in Wisconsin to parents born in Illinois and French Canada. Catharine eventually had two brothers — Thomas Daniel III, "Tom," born 18 months after Catharine in Waubeka, Wis., and John M., born twelve years later in Port Washington, Wis.
The town of Waubeka did not have electricity when the family moved there. The first day of school, Papa took Catharine to school in their horse and buggy. The school consisted of two rooms — grades one through four in one room and grades five through eight in the "big room." Catharine skipped third grade. One day the teacher just said "Catharine, go sit in this row."
She didn't know what that meant because she was still in the same classroom with her friends. Skipping third grade meant that she graduated high school at sixteen.
The family moved to Port Washington, Wis., when Catharine was nine. Here, the Ryans enjoyed the city electricity and the family's first telephone. Catharine attended Port Washington Hill School for the remainder of fifth grade; she then went to St. Mary's School through eighth grade, where she made lifetime friends. She graduated from Port Washington High School in 1925.
Catharine followed high school with a nine-month business course at the Milwaukee Vocational School. The school prepared her for the legal secretarial work that became her career. The Wisconsin Chair Company hired her toward the end of 1926 as a stenographer; she began with a salary of $50 per month, with review every six months.
After review, employees could receive raises of up to $5 per month. After Catharine received a one-time raise of $10 she learned the hard way to never tell anyone her salary.
World War II called Catharine's brothers; Tom enlisted in the Army and John in the Marine Corps. Because she wanted to explore life outside Port Washington, Catharine enlisted as a Navy Wave. She served her term in Washington, D.C., as personal secretary to John Volpe, later Governor of Massachusetts and U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Following the war Catharine returned to Milwaukee where she accepted a "temporary" 15-year job with attorney George Laikin.
In 1958, Catharine moved to the Bay Area in California, where her brother John and his wife, Nadine, lived with their two daughters. There Catharine secured her final 16-year job with attorney John Broad, for whom she worked until she retired in 1974.
Catharine entered each new job situation with confidence because, she notes, "I knew I had a good mind." Catharine was one of only three who passed out of 13 who took the test to become a Professional Legal Secretary (PLS).
Catharine and her best friend, Virginia Haines, worked together nearly every Saturday for two years to compile the first Dictionary for Secretaries that was published by Parker and Son in 1971. Catharine served one term as San Francisco chapter president of the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS).
To this day, Catharine chooses dresses as her daily attire; the only time she wore slacks was during her Navy service.
Catharine's Catholic faith has been the cornerstone of her century of living. And as Catharine says, "What is, is."
With gratitude to Catharine's niece, Kathy Klinkner, for sharing her series of interviews.
Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].