As the newspapers indicated at the time, Ryan worked for me as a timber cutter from 1954 to 1956. When he escaped from jail, I could not make up my mind from the photos in the paper whether this was the Ronald Ryan I once knew. But I felt he might be the same man, so I made contact with the Catholic chaplain at Pentridge-- Father Brosnan--and asked him to find out whether this was the man. About the time when the Executive Council decided Ryan was to hang, Father Brosnan rang me. He said this was the Ryan I had known and asked me to make a statement that might portray Ryan in a more positive light.
This was not difficult. Ryan was the unfortunate son of a drunken father, who could not support his wife and family. With his two sisters, Ryan was sent to a Catholic children's home. When he was old enough to leave the home, he saved sufficient money to pay cash for furniture in a rented house. He took his sisters from the home so his mother could again set up house for his family.
When he worked for me, he was a tough man but there was a kindliness that showed through the hard veneer. For example, he would work with men who needed financial help even though he was a much better woodcutter than those he worked with.
I have employed many men but Ryan stands out as being above average in many ways. He was clean and orderly in the camp, and business-like in his work. I shared these things at the time in the hope they might help a man who, in the eyes of many, deserved no clemency on account of his alleged callousness.
But I wanted to do much more than just speak up for the man--I felt I would like to visit him. But another phone call to Father Brosnan proved discouraging. It was almost impossible, he told me, to get anyone in to visit a condemned man except close relatives. The only hope, he said, was his friendship with the governor of the jail. This hope seemed remote, as the governor was on annual leave and not due to return until after the execution.
But a few days later--the Friday before Ryan was due to hang--I was surprised to hear the chaplain's voice on the phone. He told me the governor had returned unexpectedly and agreed to allow me to visit the jail if Ryan wished to see me. The visit was set for Sabbath morning.
As I entered the prison, I sensed the solemn responsibility that comes with visiting a man due to be executed three days later. A guard escorted me down a passage to see him. I will never forget how he jumped to his feet, and how pleased he seemed that I had come to visit him. He was in a small cell that had bars from floor to ceiling separating the prisoner from the guard posted there.
I was seated in the doorway but was not allowed in the cell with Ryan. We talked for a few minutes about the days we worked together and I was surprised to learn he had spent some time hiding in that same bushland while he had been on the run.
I asked him how he had started on his career in crime. He said it had started with gambling and a growing fascination with the prospect of "easy" money. Even though he often lost all his weekly earnings, he could not give it up and was soon heavily in debt. He turned to housebreaking as a way of getting money.
But it did not take long for the conversation to get to more serious things, such as religion. Ryan was obviously anxious to ask questions on some things that were on his mind. About 20 minutes into the conversation, Ryan's elderly mother joined us. Her first serious question was whether her son had made his peace with God. There was anxiety in her voice--she knew time was running out for her son.
Ryan spoke gently to his mother but replied, "No, Mum, I still have some doubts."
He explained that he did not want to make a convenience of God, as he had ignored Him all his life. Besides, he said, he was not clear in his mind how he should go about making peace with God.
To the best of my ability, I endeavoured to help him. But I left with the feeling that he still did not understand the love of God or the plan of salvation. But I had taken a little book with me. It was not possible to leave it with the prisoner but I could leave it with the governor of the jail. He could give it to Ryan "at the governor's pleasure," as the regulations say. The governor would inspect it before handing it to the inmate. So I left the copy of Steps to Christ at the governor's office with the request that, if possible, it should be handed to Ryan.
Father Brosnan told me later that Ryan received this little book and was so interested in it that he was reading it even during the priest's visit the next day. He apparently read it from cover to cover and it would not surprise me if he read it much more than once.
I was not permitted to visit him again before the execution, even though this was postponed for a few weeks because of possible new evidence. Finally, on the morning of the execution, Ryan was asked if there was any statement he would like to make. He requested that his solicitors be told their efforts to save him were not in vain for, he said, when he was scheduled to be executed he was not ready to die. But now, he declared, he was ready to face death. I believe the little book I left played a significant part in this change of heart.
Father Brosnan told me he believed Ryan had made his peace with God and this enabled him to go to the gallows as he did. I am sure this little book answered his questions and showed him the way to peace within himself.
The last person hanged in Australia, Ryan refused to take the drugs usually administered before execution and, at the appointed time, he walked quietly, calmly and quickly to the gallows. His parting words to the hangman were, "God bless you, old man. Make it quick."
Our lives are a fragrance presented by Christ to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those being saved and by those perishing. To those who are perishing we are a fearful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved we are a life-giving perfume. 2 Corinthians 2:15, 16.
Keith Johanson has been a businessman and community leader. He is now retired in Warburton, Victoria.