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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Man dies at 85, comes out in his obituary: ‘I’ll forever Rest in Peace’

Undated photo of Edward Thomas Ryan.  (Family photo/Family photo)
By Jonathan Edwards, Molly Wadzeck Kraus and Jiselle Lee Washington Post

Edward Thomas Ryan died on June 1 but still had a secret he wanted to tell, one he had held onto his entire life. He chose his obituary to announce it to the world.

Published in the Albany Times Union on June 8, Ryan’s obituary started traditionally enough: name, academic achievements, career information, funeral details.

Then it took an unconventional turn – a passage he had written in the first person.

“Edward wanted to share the following: ‘I must tell you one more thing. I was Gay all my life: thru grade school, thru High School, thru College, thru Life,’ ” he wrote, later adding, “ ‘I’m sorry for not having the courage to come out as Gay. I was afraid of being ostracized: by Family, Friends, and Co-Workers. Seeing how people like me were treated, I just could not do it.’ ”

Ryan’s posthumously coming out has gone viral, resonating with people around the world, especially because it was published at the beginning of Pride Month. Not only did Ryan reveal he was gay after dying at 85, he told potentially millions of his decades-long love story. For a quarter century, he had been in a “loving and caring relationship” with Paul Cavagnaro, who died in 1994 after a medical procedure “gone wrong.”

“He was the love of my life,” Ryan wrote in his obituary. “We had 25 great years together.”

Ryan’s niece, Linda Sargent, said her uncle was a kind, private person, and she felt lucky to be one of the few he let into his life. When Sargent was growing up, Ryan came alone to family gatherings on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, she said. She and Ryan grew close when Sargent became an adult and decided to volunteer to help her uncle cater weddings and other events at the American Legion post in Rensselaer, New York.

Ryan’s being gay was a bit of an open secret in the family, Sargent said. Some suspected but didn’t know for sure, she added. Everyone knew about the existence of Ryan’s “friend,” Cavagnaro, but no one in the family – not even Sargent – ever met him before he died.

Cavagnaro’s nephew, Chris Maloy, said that his uncle, who was always charming and fun, worked as a bartender at the only gay bar in Albany while Ryan – who usually went by “Ed” but was known as “Tom” in his private life with Cavagnaro’s family and friends – maintained a facade of a straight life. But Maloy and other Cavagnaro relatives knew they were together – “a lovely couple,” in fact. They vacationed in Cape Cod together and attended Cavagnaro holiday family gatherings as a couple but drove separate cars and lived in the country to hide their relationship, Maloy said.

“Their relationship was understood within our family, even if it wasn’t openly discussed,” he added.

Ryan was scared that coming out would destroy their relationship, threaten his job as a firefighter and make him a target of physical violence, Sargent said, so he hid his secret from nearly everybody.

“I feel bad because he couldn’t enjoy his life with the person he loved, to be able to come out in the open like people are today,” she said.

Ryan’s obituary states that he was a retired colonel. The Washington Post was not immediately able to verify any military service records for Ryan. A spokesman for the New York National Guard said Ryan was a member of the New York Guard, a volunteer state force that assists the National Guard, between 1976 and 2006. The agency can be called on by the governor to assist during natural disasters or other emergencies as unpaid volunteers. They use ranks and modified military uniforms but are not federal reservists like National Guard members.

In 1971, Ryan started volunteering for the Rensselaer Fire Department and was quickly subjected to a trial by literal fire, fellow volunteer firefighter Tom Tiernan said. On his first day, a gas station caught fire across the street from what eventually became city hall. Overwhelmed by the frenzy of the station, Ryan told Tiernan that he wasn’t sure what to do. Tiernan and more veteran volunteers reassured him: “Don’t worry,” he recalled them telling Ryan. “We got you.”

Once the fire was out, Ryan told the other volunteers that extinguishing the blaze had been “a piece of cake … with all you guys!” Tiernan recalled him saying. Ryan was then known as the “piece of cake” guy, he said.

Over the next 17 years volunteering at the department, Ryan earned a reputation for his positive attitude, helpfulness and love of cooking for the other firefighters. He was also known for his cooking at the American Legion post in Rensselaer where he worked. Jami Moxon, chairman of the post, said she held her first wedding at the post’s banquet hall to ensure her guests got Ryan’s homemade stuffed chicken breast.

William Brooking Jr., Rensselaer’s current fire chief, said he met Ryan when he was around 7 years old and started hanging out at the station. “Uncle Ed” and the other firefighters let them wash the firetruck after they got back from calls, he said.

After Tiernan reassured Ryan heading into his first fire, the two men developed a 30-year friendship. They attended church together, and Ryan invited Tiernan into the local group of the Knights of Columbus. Both Irish, they liked to have drinks together on St. Patrick’s Day.

Tiernan said he never knew Ryan was gay.

“All I knew was that he was one of us, and it didn’t matter,” he added.

Ryan did come out to a select few. Ten to 15 years ago, Sargent and Ryan were at the American Legion post walking out to the car after catering an event when Ryan said he needed to tell her something: He was gay and had been closeted for decades. Sargent wasn’t surprised. She hugged her uncle and told him that she loved him, had always loved him and always would.

“He said thank you,” she said. “He cried. We both cried.”

A few years later, they were spending time together when Ryan asked her if he should “let the world know that I was gay” in his obituary. “I said go ahead if it’s going to make you happy then do it. He told me, ‘I’m at a peace now; I don’t have to hide, but let the world know I’m gay.’ ”

Ryan wrote his own obituary and tasked Sargent and her husband with making sure it was published in the local newspaper, Sargent said, adding that she’s happy he finally liberated himself.

His obituary impacted people beyond Sargent and others he knew personally. Albany native Michael Casey helped circulate Ryan’s story to hundreds of people through a Facebook post that included a path made of multicolored cups leading to a Pride flag.

“This is why we celebrate Gay PRIDE so visibly, because maybe one day everyone will be able to live their life not being afraid of what others think or say …” Casey wrote. “When we raise our Pride flag this year we will light two special candles, one for you Ed and one for Paul.”

Ryan’s obituary ended as traditionally as it began. “Uncle Ed” and his family thanked the fire department he had worked for, the hospital workers who had treated him and the hospice workers who “were there for everything and were our backbone throughout it all.” He died of heart failure, his niece said. But before the customary acknowledgments, Ryan touched on why he was revealing one of the most intimate parts of himself to so many, the very part he had fought so hard for so long to keep hidden.

“Now that my secret is known,” he wrote, “I’ll forever Rest in Peace.”

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Alex Horton contributed to this report.