Life interrupted — Willie Ryman III’s legacy remembered

Published 5:01 pm Saturday, February 17, 2018

Twenty years ago Willie Ryman III and family were living their lives as usual with work and play, fishing trips and Little League Baseball.

“He’d take my kids and a gob of other kids to the beach and camping and just about everywhere. Before he died we were planning a trip to Zion, Canada. We were going to take all of the kids and bicycles; we were going to be gone about six weeks. We had it all planned,” Kim Ryman Chiasson, his sister, said.

But his life, and that of his family, was interrupted and forever changed on Feb. 6, 1998. Ryman, a 20-year veteran of the Port Arthur Fire Department, had stopped by Chiasson’s home to check on her two teenaged daughters when he encountered serial killer Elroy Chester who was in the process of violently assaulting his nieces. Ryman was shot to death by Chester who had been on a six-month violent rampage in the Pear Ridge area of the city that left five people dead, three people under the age of 17 sexually assaulted and several others shot and injured. It is thought that Ryman saved his nieces’ lives by stopping to check on them when he did. His sister, the teens’ mother, was also a firefighter in the city at that time and was on duty when the incident happened.

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Ryman’s memory is still alive and well.

“He was larger than life. A lot of fun and would do anything for anybody,” Chiasson said. “He was a great dad to his kids and a great dad to my kids.”

The fun-loving family man was a bit of a jokester and the life of the party as well as a mediator of sorts.

“He would try to always bring everybody together, get everybody to laugh,” she said. “He was the life of the party, anyone will tell you that. Even down to what he was wearing.”

Chaisson remembers the time Ryman wore white jeans with a black and white shirt and a plastic Santa on a necklace for a get together.

The siblings were both divorced at the time so Ryman would stop by and mow her lawn while she would cook up a meal.

PAFD Capt. Perry Manuel was a rookie at the department when he and Ryman became friends. Firefighters would get together for Christmas parties and end up at Ryman’s house.

“He was outgoing and really friendly,” Manuel said. “One of those guys who can be friends with everybody.”

Just as Chiasson described Ryman as a jokester, so did Manuel.

But there was more to Ryman than his lighthearted side.

“A lot of the guys looked up to him as a role model as far as fire fighting goes and you could see in his smile he really loved his job. He didn’t want to do anything else. This was his job.”

Manuel and Ryman had children near the same age and both ended up coaching Little League Baseball.

Stephen Curran was deputy chief at the PAFD when Ryman was killed but he had known the man long before.

“It (Ryman’s death) was one of the hardest experiences of my career I think,” Curran said. “Willie was a neighborhood boy as far as I was concerned. We grew up in the same neighborhood. He was younger than me but I knew him and his sister Kim real well.”

Curran described him as a “fireman’s fireman.”

“He’s the guy you want to be with in a fire,” Curran said. “He’s going to get in where most people won’t go. He was one of those kinds of guys.”

As Curran climbed the ranks in the fire department Ryman still treated him the same — something that doesn’t always happen in these situations.

“I moved up in rank. People tend to not want to be around you and he never behaved like that,” he said. “He always treated others as human. He was sweet. I don’t like to use the word sweet, but he had a good heart. Was a brave soul — strong. It tore everybody up when we went down.”

Younger firefighters might not know the whole story of Ryman but his memory is still alive. Station 5 has an emblem dedicated to Willie A. Ryman, or WAR, with a picture of an aardvark. Ryman, Manuel said, was very proud of a family member who was in the military and pat of the Aardvark Squadron. Ryman also had a tattoo of the aardvark.

In 2016, the Willie A. Ryman III Scholarship was created to assist children of Port Arthur firefighters in their first year of college. Evan Freeman was awarded the first scholarship from the fund this year. Freeman’s father is a Port Arthur firefighter, his mother is a paramedic/dispatcher for Acadian Ambulance, his stepmother is a firefighter/emergency medical technician for the Nederland Fire Department and his brother is a certified firefighter/EMT working for Acadian Ambulance. He plans to continue in their footsteps with a career in emergency medical services.

Life goes on for those who knew and loved Ryman. Manuel pays a visit to his grave at Greenlawn Cemetery when visiting his parents’ graves. Curran left PAFD and spent some time as chief at Port Neches Fire Department before retiring not long ago although he still continues to stay busy with emergency response work.

“There were so many repercussions to everything that happened,” Chiasson said. “His son turned to drugs after his death and died a few years later. His daughter Terra now lives in Liberty Hill and he has two grandkids he never met.”

Chiasson is no longer a fire fighter and now lives in another part of the state. She now has grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Her daughters, his nieces whom he saved, have families of their own and are all doing well.

And this summer, hopefully the family will be able to take that trip to Zion, Canada.