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Janesville is his oxygen: Ryan and city go hand in hand

By Marcia Nelesen
August 31, 2015

It can be argued that no one event or person has drawn more notice to Janesville than Paul Ryan.

The hometown boy is serving his ninth term representing the First Congressional District and is also the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He captured the world's attention when he became the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.

When the Ryans found themselves on the world stage, “I guess Janesville came with us,” Janna Ryan, Paul's wife, observed in a recent interview.

Paul Ryan and Janesville have always been a package deal, and he is not shy about mentioning his hometown and the grounding it provides to anyone who will listen.

“Whenever we go someplace, people seem to know and associate Paul with Janesville,” Janna said.

“I don't know if that's because he has always been so connected to Janesville and talked about Janesville so much … I don't know how you can begin to talk about Paul without talking about Janesville.”

Even today, people visiting town stop and ask neighbors for directions to the Ryan home. A YouTube video shows one excited traveler standing outside the brick house in the historic Courthouse Hill District and whispering that she had to check out the congressman's home during her stay in Wisconsin.

Back in 2012, Janesville hosted a media frenzy when Ryan was introduced as Mitt Romney's running mate.

Media trackers showed up at the end of July, and rumors ramped up that Ryan was on a short list of possible VP candidates. The word “wonk”—describing Paul's penchant for policy—became part of the national vocabulary.

National media outlets lit up the Ryan home with their equipment into the early morning hours of Aug. 11. They didn't realize that the family had already snuck out and was headed to the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia, for the announcement.

Later that day, journalists and broadcasters converged on Janesville to scratch out new angles. Teams of roving reporters canvassed his neighborhood and collared anyone they could corner.

Resident Tony Huml fielded the “longtime friend” calls for the family.

In a subsequent article for The Gazette, Huml recalled: “Sunday was CBS National, CNN, The Daily out of New York. Yesterday was ABC National, CNN. There were two CBS's, too. And then I've got a call from Reuters and then the AP. And tonight, the Spanish newspaper.

“I will say, a couple of times, they wanted to hear something spicy,” Huml said. “I don't have anything spicy.”

Even Paul's high school prom date, who then lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was not safe from media attention.

Local reporters got used to fielding calls from across the nation and from far-flung countries such as Australia and Japan.

A journalist couple working for El Mundo in Spain hopped on a plane to Janesville from their station in New York, saying their readers were enamored with Paul Ryan—his youth, his beautiful family, his appeal, his intelligence and his Catholicism. They compared the fascination to that surrounding late President John F. Kennedy.

The journalists said their Spanish readers love reading about American politics.

Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, herself from Appleton, broadcast live from Craig High School, interviewing seasoned political reporter Stan Milam and retired Craig civics teacher Sam Loizzo. She also bought a life-sized cutout of Packers quarterback Brett Favre at Carousel Consignments.

Paul Ryan said recently he still thinks about how surreal it was to see family members and Janesville friends talking about him on national TV.

Secret Service agents came with the media, and residents excitedly reported around-town sightings.

The Ryans sent a lot of people to the Buckhorn Supper Club, which serves Paul's favorite meal, prime rib.

“I got to tell you, the comments that I always got from people from The New York Times, from MSNBC, from the Secret Service—'Wow, people are really nice here. This is not like where I come from,'” Ryan said in a speech to Forward Janesville in 2013.

A rally held at Craig High School shortly after the announcement was a raucous love fest.

“To be able to go out there and just look across and see neighbors and friends and family, to see my priest, to see teachers that I know never voted for me but were still there to encourage me on—I gotta tell you, that was really something.

“In the world, people know that I come from Janesville, Wisconsin,” Paul said, figuring that Janesville got more than its 10 minutes of fame courtesy of the campaign.

“I think the country identified me as being from Janesville. It sounds like a middle-America town. There are so many people in the country who relate to Janesville because they come from a similar place.”

Will the city need to gear up for a presidential run in the future?

Jeff Mayers, a longtime state political observer and president of, an online political and government news service in Madison, said Ryan performed well enough the first time around to be considered a serious national candidate again.

“I think that he had a taste of it,” Mayers said. “And he's got plenty of time to do that. He doesn't have to be in a hurry.”

Meanwhile, he likely could hold on to his current House seat as long as he wants, Mayers said.

Ryan is probably happy with his role as head of the Ways and Means Committee because he can study the policy he loves, Mayers said.

“My sense is, from talking to staffers and others, that he thoroughly enjoys the range of issues,” he added. “You don't get there unless you are very well regarded by colleges, unless you know your issues.”

Barring any major change, it is almost certain that Paul will continue to live in his office during the week and return home to his family and Janesville on the weekends.

“It is his refuge, his heart,” Janna said. “It's his oxygen to be here and be with this family. That's what drives him, keeps him centered.”

Janna recalled her husband's 2013 Forward Janesville speech, and it still brings tears to her eyes.

“It was so beautiful,” she said. “You can say it was a love letter, but it was really a thank you note. It was just a huge thank you to the community and the people.

“It's one of the best speeches he's ever given.”

In it, Paul said:

“If there is anything that Janna and I learned during this campaign, in this town, a Democratic town—and, believe me, I am a Republican, I know this—it's the absolute warmth, the hospitality, the community, the togetherness, the 'We-are-in-it-together' kind of spirit we have here.

“That's what makes this town so great.

“That's what makes it home … And we should be really proud, here in Janesville, that this is the kind of place that we here are making for ourselves, our kids and our grandkids.

"You don't know how great it (Janesville) is until you've been away from it."

Ryan talked of returning home from Washington on Fridays and passing familiar landmarks as he rolls along Highway 14 and into Janesville—past the place where he bow hunts, HHFFRRRGGH Inn, Ryan Inc., Craig High School and St. John Vianney Catholic Church, where he worships.

“The stress of D.C. literally just rolls off of me as I put the miles on and come into town,” he said.

“It is an incredible, psychological relief to me. I immediately begin to relax and feel comfortable.

“It's a feeling of belonging to … someplace, of belonging to someone—that you live in a community where it's bigger than yourself, … a community (where) we have so many dedicated people …

“The social scientists call this civil society.

“I call it Janesville, Wisconsin.”


It was like being stuffed into a cannon and shot across the country.

It was like being hit by a lightening bolt.

That's how Janna and Paul Ryan describe the aftermath of Paul's introduction as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012.

What changed for them that day in August?

 “What didn't, really,” Janna, 46, said recently during her first formal interview about the campaign's effect on the family.

“Nothing was the same for those few months.

“I really had no clue what to expect because it was really like a lightening bolt hitting our lives,” she recalled.

“All of a sudden, one day, your life is completely typical, and we're going about our daily lives in Janesville. And the next day, you are on the world stage.

“It was … so fantastical, it was hard to process that it was actually happening.”

Even politically savvy Paul, 45, a longtime politician, was not prepared for the intense security.

When the Ryans returned home from Norfolk, Virginia—the announcement was made with presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the deck of the USS Wisconsin—they saw the concrete barriers separating their home from their neighbors' and were introduced to the Secret Service.

“I sort of knew what to expect,” Paul recalled recently. “I didn't expect the security to be as great as it was, as big as it was.

“When you have Jersey barriers, and when your neighbor wants to have someone come to their house, and they first have to check with the Secret Service, that's kind of an inconvenience,” he said.

Paul and Janna spent the next day apologizing to their neighbors, who were “awesome,” the couple said.

“Janesville seemed so safe,” Janna said. “I didn't feel like it was a place I needed security. I trusted them (the Secret Service) to know the world was obviously much bigger. It wasn't people from Janesville they were concerned about.”

Paul negotiated with the agents to minimize their presence here.

“In every other town, they stopped traffic at all the stoplights for me to drive through,” he recalled. “Anywhere I ever went in America, I had a 10- to 30-car motorcade.

“I said, 'Please, do not do this to Janesville. Win or lose, we have to live with our neighbors the rest of our lives. I begged the Secret Service not to stop traffic as we moved through town.

“That's the only time they yielded to me.”

Fifteen agents were attached to him, nine to his children and nine to his wife, he said.

The agents wore “Janesville casual”—a different dress code than they do in other places—to better blend into their surroundings, Janna said. Still, reports of sightings circulated throughout Janesville.

Agents sat in Mass at St. John Vianney with the family, which includes children Liza, Charlie and Sam.

They ran behind the children at their school cross country meets.

They trailed after Janna inside Carousel Consignments and had a hard time blending in at her meetings at the Janesville Woman's Club.

“At woman's club, women still talk how funny it was to have these guys in the meetings,” Janna said.

At Halloween, a contingent of media and Secret Service agents trick-or-treated with the family and their friends and navigated Skelly's Farm Market corn maze with the children.

“I think Sam lost the agent in the maze,” Paul recalled.

On the road, Paul stayed in many hotels but didn't see a single lobby, always coming in through the loading dock and the kitchen.

Paul remembered early on going to a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, to celebrate a birthday.

The Secret Service shut down traffic as the family entered. Agents ran metal detectors over the other patrons and searched purses.

They stood with their backs to the Ryans, staring at the other customers as they ate.

“I just felt so embarrassed for having to do that to people,” Paul said. “We stopped going to restaurants. We thought it was so offensive to people.

“It got to the point where you don't want to inconvenience other people's lives."

Paul and Janna couldn't drive their own cars, so first thing in the morning, agents asked Janna for her schedule so they could be ready.

The family was never involved in the logistics.

“They made a big point of that,” Janna said. “All these things would happen, and I would never know.”

When she visited a friend, they were there ahead of time, for example.

The family began curtailing activities so they wouldn't inconvenience others, Janna said.

It all ended less than three months later, when Romney and Ryan lost the election.

The next day, agents took down the barricades and packed up their weapons. It was as if the air had suddenly been let out of a frantically bobbing balloon.

“You go from being very important in terms of security to not mattering in terms of security,” Janna recalled.

“That part felt good,” she added. “You can get in your car and point at wherever you want to go, by yourself. You can listen to whatever you want to listen to, make a phone call without having someone hear the conversation.”

Overall, the Ryans had a “very positive experience with the campaign,” Janna said.

“Aside from the surreal part of it—which was like feeling your whole life had turned upside-down—people would be pleased to know that a family could have a lightening strike and get thrust onto the national stage and be treated as well as we could be treated.

“Even having lost, it was gentle on our family.

“That was my priority, to make sure the kids and I felt we were safe, that the experience was positive.”

The kids had fun, she recalled. They loved the campaign; they loved traveling; they loved the Secret Service.

“They became friends with them,” she said. “They were wonderful people.”

Paul likened the experience to “being in the bubble.” He found it unsettling and abnormal but said he learned to adjust to it.

“In such a bubble—and I just did it for three months—it makes you think, 'Gosh, what if you were in this bubble for eight years?' How you would just sort of lose perspective.”

He suspects that the longer someone is in such an environment, the more detached he or she becomes from the real world.

“It's a different way of living, different than anyone else has,” Paul said.

“You have to be very grounded to begin with and work to keep that grounding.”