Ex-Air Force pilot shares knowledge to broaden students’ horizons

Michael Ryan uses the lessons he learned as an Air Force officer to teach world affairs at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson.

By Patt Keith


Cambria County native Michael C. Ryan has packed a lot of living and learning into his life, and now he is sharing those lessons with students at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson.

Ryan, a Mount instructor in world affairs, has nearly four decades of public and private sector service: first as an A-10 fighter pilot during the Cold War and most recently as a high-ranking civilian who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy.

“He has just retired from a substantial role in the government and is bringing his incredible experience to the classroom for the Mounties,” Sam Wagner, Mount associate vice president of marketing and communications, said.

“Ryan is incredibly student-focused and our students absolutely love him. His knowledge of international affairs and world cultures is invaluable to our students and he does an incredible job of bringing that knowledge into the classroom,” Wagner said.

In this role, as deputy assistant secretary, he supported the under secretary of defense for policy and oversaw policy issues related to the nations and international organizations of Europe (including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Russia, the Middle East, Africa and the Western Hemisphere.

Ryan’s responsibilities included expand partnerships and deepen defense cooperation with more than 120 nations.

In 2016, U.S. Air Force Maj. Holly Cookson was assigned by the Air Force Reserve to be Ryan’s executive officer. At that time, Ryan was the director of the J9 Interagency Partnering effort at U.S. European Command, Stuttgart Germany.

Cookson describes Ryan as a “great friend and mentor” who showed her how building relationships leads to success.

Ryan’s responsibilities at the European command were to bring leaders from more than a dozen U.S. agencies (FBI, Homeland Security, Department of Energy, the State Department) and scores of diplomatic entities and agencies to work together with the U.S. military and the Department of Defense.

“He was like herding cats in this vast bureaucracy, and he was very, very good because it comes down to having people of all cultures, backgrounds, schools, relationships, training in different areas to come to a common purpose which is defending our homeland,” Cookson said. “Every agency and aspect of the U.S. military has its own culture.

Cookson said Ryan was “constantly teaching” so she wasn’t surprised for him to be in a college classroom. Ryan constantly taught her better ways to lead. As they walked to meetings, Cookson said she used the time away from phones and computers as opportunities for mentoring.

She credits Ryan for helping her see her potential as a civilian and within the Air Force Reserves.

“How do I define success? How do I want to live? What brings me happiness,” Cookson said, recalling the questions Ryan asked her. He told me to “figure that out and follow it. … Mr. Ryan made me think bigger and gave me inspiration that it was all within my reach if I wanted it.”

Ryan’s first dream was to become an Air Force pilot. He was first inspired as a little boy watching planes criss-cross the skies.

“I was in seventh grade, and I was waiting to see the guidance counselor for one of those first career talks and I picked up the U.S. Air Force Academy catalog. That was it for me. I knew,” he said. He served for more than 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, but the first part, the happiest part, was flying the A-10 Thunderbolt II in Europe.

He grew up in a military family whose Catholic faith sustained them when his father was missing in action in World War II.

Several generations of Ryans attended the Mount starting with his grandmother. His great aunt joined the college’s founding order, the Sisters of Mercy. As Sister Mary Therese, she taught English there for 50 years.

So, when Ryan retired from the Senior Executive Service in the summer of 2017, he chose to return to Cambria County — after 25 years in Europe.

“I feel blessed to have had the career I’ve had and the life we’ve shared. It’s all by the grace of God, “ he said.

The Ryan file

Name: Michael Ryan

Residences: Richland and Carrolltown

Family: Married nearly 35 years to Gloria; children: Carissa, 29, lives in Boston; son Michael Daniel Ryan, 28, Carrolltown

Education: Bachelor of Science degree, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Master of Science degree, international relations, Troy State University, European Campus; Distinguished Graduate, Joint Military Intelligence College, Washington, D.C.; National Defense Fellow, Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., and Collège Interarmees de Defense (Joint Defense College), Paris, France

Career: Adjunct instructor of world affairs at Mount Aloysius College, Cresson; retired Air Force colonel; retired member of the Senior Executive Service; former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, Office of the Secretary of Defense


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