Biography and History

William Fitts Ryan, nicknamed Fitts, was born on June 28, 1922 in Albion, New York to Bernard and Harriet Ryan. Bernard Ryan was a Lawyer and a Judge on the New York State Court of Claims. William Fitts attended the Albion public schools and then Princeton University, graduating in 1944 with a BA. He fought in the Philippines with the U.S. Army rising to the rank of first lieutenant and also served with the occupation forces in Japan. After the army he earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1949 and practiced law briefly with the New York City firm of Hatch, Wolfe, Nash and Ten Eyck.

Soon he joined Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan's team, serving as an Assistant District Attorney from 1950 to 1957. At the same time he worked for the election of Adlai Stevenson (1956), meeting Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman. In 1957 Ryan resigned from the DA's office and set out on his own political career. Ryan founded the first reform club called the Riverside Democrats, using it as a base to run for a West Side district leadership post. He was successful in this election and was re-elected to the post two years later.

In 1960 he upset Representative Ludwig Teller, capturing the 20th District seat in the House of Representatives and started on his long career in Washington politics. Soon after he was elected, he attacked the House Committee on Un-American Activities, being one of only six Congressmen who voted to cut off HUAC's appropriation. In 1961 he was labelled a radical for calling for admission of Red China to the United Nations, for suggesting arms control at the height of the Cold War, and for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in support of the civil rights movement.

During the 1960's, he called for a full investigation of Federal Housing Administration, a one billion dollar Title One program which was to provide money for middle income housing, proposed a permanent Civil Rights Commission, introduced two bills to prevent racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing in Washington D.C., proposed bills aimed at protecting migrant workers, supported Medicare, introduced the Jury Selection Act, called for a broadening of Selective Service System into a National Service Program, sponsored the Gateway National Park Bill, created the law that banned poisonous lead paints from residential buildings, and urged the impeachment of President Nixon for “war crimes.”

During the 1960's he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, fought against legislation to establish the Communications Satellite Corporation, voted against authorized corporal punishment in District of Columbia schools, joined 16 other liberal Democrats in an attempt to bar seating of the Mississippi membership in the House pending settlement by the Negro Freedom Democratic Party (who contended Negroes were not permitted to register and vote in Mississippi), spoke against the insistence of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that Medicare required a disclaimer of Communist affiliation, voted against Johnson's supplemental defense and foreign economic aid appropriations bill, and fought to defeat the Comsat project.

Ryan was a member of the Science and Astronautics Committee and also the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. During his political career the only election he lost was the 1965 Democratic Mayoral Primary in New York City.

In 1949 he married Priscilla Marbury and had one son and three daughters: William Fitts, Jr., Priscilla, Virginia, and Catherine. He was a member of the Riverside Democrats Inc., New York Reform Democratic Movement, and the New York Young Democratic Club.

In 1970 he underwent treatment for throat cancer but left the hospital for a short time to cast a crucial vote against a proposed House bill for new Vietnam War appropriations. Ryan died suddenly on September 17, 1972 after surgery to remove an ulcer.

Source: From the finding aid for MC165

  • William Fitts Ryan Papers. 1947-1972 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC165

    The papers consist primarily of records maintained in William Fitts Ryan's congressional office in Washington, D.C. his district office in New York City, and campaign materials. Some materials from his residence are also found, but these must be reviewed by an archivist prior to use.