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Double dip of love

When cancer slows their beloved ice cream man, kids rally with cards, hugs and love.

By BABITA PERSAUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


TAMPA -- The children know him as Jerry the ice cream man.

The one who rides through South Tampa in a sky-blue truck, kids waving him down as they run to the curb. He carries biscuits for the neighborhood dogs, is quick with napkins, remembers names and orders.

For 16 years, in a declining business, he has succeeded at turning tongues red from cherry Popsicles.

Then, one day shortly after winter break, he wasn't there.

"I don't think he would up and quit," said Ashleigh Fabian, a fourth-grader at Dale Mabry Elementary. "He likes his job too much."

The children soon found out the sad news: Jerry Ryan, 59, has cancer -- specifically, multiple myeloma, which affects plasma cells in the bone marrow. He spent weeks at the VA Hospital undergoing chemotherapy.

He has been their ice cream man their whole lives, in neighborhoods like Beach Park, Sunset Park, Culbreath Isles, Bayshore Beautiful. And at school -- Mabry, Coleman Middle and St. Mary's Episcopal.

Mabry first-grade teacher Cathy Aubin couldn't let news of his illness slide. She collected money from teachers, enough for gift certificates to Winn-Dixie, Albertsons and Boston Market.

Martee Craparo, a parent, organized home-cooked meals, delivered to Ryan's small brown house on Euclid Avenue, where he lives with his wife, Judy.

"He's not the kind of man who would come and ask for anything," Craparo said.

Mabry students made cards from white paper and colored pencils in art class:

Courtney cut out a heart, which looked like an ice cream cone when folded.

A.J. drew a stick figure of Ryan doing a karate chop. "Fight it off," he wrote.

"This is the girl who always got the chocolate sandwich," wrote Bess. "School will not be the same without Jerry, the ice cream man."

The cards were delivered to Ryan's home by the hundreds. He sat in his tan recliner one afternoon recently reading them, his legs in white socks, his hair thinning from chemotherapy, a thin tube in his arm.

He tried not to cry.

It didn't work.

He's not stingy and never grumpy, the students say

It wasn't the ice cream these children missed. Ryan had arranged for a replacement, a man with a sea-green truck.

"He's not the same," said Lindsay Dorio, 10.

Ryan always asks about school and gives advice, which usually starts: "I've been around a lot longer than you kids. I've seen life."

He is never grumpy, said fourth-grader Amanda Collier. "Usually when you see an ice cream man in a truck, they aren't happy."

Hayley Plant said he is patient. When she found out she was lactose intolerant, Ryan explained all the choices repeatedly, never getting mad, until she finally decided on Italian ice.

Another thing: "He's not stingy," said Genny Holland. Her younger brother Tripp was short 10 cents one day for a Tweetie Bird Popsicle and "Jerry still gave it to him."

Ryan could have demanded the correct amount. These aren't the poor kids of Tampa, after all. They are the sons and daughters of Tampa's elite, neighborhoods of two-story, three-garage homes, unlike his own.

Ryan did a lot of things for free. He donated ice cream to Coleman's special education classes. At Mabry, he provided tubs of vanilla ice cream for monthly birthday celebrations, gave away ice cream coupons to math superstars, free Popsicles on Olympic Day. When reading goals were met in the library, when a class got recognized for highest PTA membership, at the fifth grade year-end bash and the annual school walk-a-thons.

"Every kid who came off that track got a Popsicle," said art teacher Pam Heilig. Sometimes that would be 780 kids.

In 1995, Dale Mabry Elementary named Ryan its Business Partner of the Year, an honor usually bestowed to bank presidents or corporate heads.

Barbara Hancock, the principal then, said recently: "The beautiful thing about Jerry is what he did for the children is so simple."

Why did Ryan bother?

It started nearly a decade ago with Katie Dosal, who had leukodystrophy, a nerve disorder, and was in a wheelchair. She lived across the street from the school and her mother was a teacher there.

Local businesses raised money for Katie and the playground that now bears her name. J & J Ice Cream, Ryan's company, was among them.

Ryan stayed long after Katie died at age 6. He had become part of the school.

Kris Dosal, Katie's mother, believes Ryan is somehow connected to these children, as if he were meant to be their ice cream man.

One Christmas, Katie wanted a stuffed rainbow monkey. The closest thing her mom could find was a rainbow dinosaur.

Then one day Ryan showed up with a wrapped gift for Katie.

A stuffed rainbow monkey.

Katie never told him what she wanted. Ryan says he picked it up by chance.

Kris Dosal is convinced it was no coincidence.

Football injury cuts short dream of a baseball career

Being an ice cream man isn't always someone's first choice of occupations. And it wasn't Ryan's either.

His dream was baseball.

In Fairfield, a picturesque Connecticut township where his mother was a private nurse and his father a machinery company president, the teenage Ryan had shoeboxes of baseball cards, idolized Yogi Berra and wore No. 8 at Fairfield Woods High.

One day, when he was 16, scouts from the New York Yankees attended a Fairfield game and grew interested in Ryan, he recalls.

The next year, in a football game, Ryan broke several ribs, his nose and two fingers. His athletic career was over.

"I don't cry over spilled milk," Ryan said the other day from his recliner. If he had been a baseball player, he wouldn't have that glass trophy from being Business Partner of the Year on his living room shelf.

And he wouldn't have met Judy, his wife of 39 years.

She stayed with him through his days in the Navy, his years as king of a small empire of auto parts stores in Fairfield, and through their move to Tampa, where Ryan first worked as a mechanic for local garages and then for himself. One customer: the owner of a fleet of ice cream trucks.

Ryan bought one. He wanted out of the car repair business.

His only connection to the Yankees now is when George Steinbrenner comes out of his Beach Park mansion for cones with his grandchildren.

A young dream believer knows he's coming back

Ryan was diagnosed with multiple myeloma on Dec. 19. Bending to get milk from the fridge would feel "like an arrow went threw my leg," Ryan said. He has to go into the hospital every month for chemotherapy four days at a time.

He wants the kids to know he's coming back. Genny Holland, 10, has no doubt. She dreamed about it.

She was on a big island, she said, and it was very hot and she needed some ice cream really badly. But for the longest time, Ryan didn't show.

Finally, he did, she said, sailing in on a sky-blue boat.

- Babita Persaud can be reached at (813) 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com.

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