Farewell to Australian hero Bill Ryan 1922–2019

Bill Ryan campaigning against coal seam gas outside the NSW Labor conference in June. Photo: Pip Hinman

One of Australia's foremost environmental activists, Bill Ryan, has died in Sydney at the age of 97.

Bill was part of the legendary Kokoda campaign during World War II, in which Australian troops finally stopped the southward advance of the Japanese Imperial Army in appalling, mountainous conditions. Wounded in action in 1942, Bill later returned to fight in New Britain.

After the war he worked for the PMG, and later Telecom Australia (now Telstra). Bill's son Colin also worked there, and both were involved in the struggle to improve workers' rights.

Bill struggled with PTSD and depression for many years following his military experiences. He was painfully aware that the sacrifices of the war did little to improve stark situations of injustice at home and abroad.

A lifelong and active trade unionist, Bill was also involved in successful campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and to end the Vietnam War.

After Bill retired, his beloved wife Joyce died, and his life temporarily lost all meaning. But concern for his grandchildren (and then great-grandchildren) motivated him to become a dedicated environmental activist, undaunted by the fact that he was almost blind and had trouble walking.

“What sort of a world are we leaving for them?,” he wondered.

Using a specially modified computer, Bill was able to stay on top of the latest science of global warming. He wrote letters and lobbied politicians. When that got nowhere, he joined civil disobedience campaigns to actively do something about the climate emergency, putting his own frail body on the line. His ever-supportive son (and expert sign painter) Colin was frequently arrested alongside him.

Bill was a passionate supporter of non-violent direct action.

When asked how he felt about being arrested, Bill said: “I was willing to put my life on the line in the Second World War, so putting my body on the line for climate action is a small inconvenience.”

Bill came to particular prominence during the struggle to save the Leard Forest from coal mining, but he was also tossed into the Hunter River alongside Josh Fox while supporting the Pacific Climate Warriors, marched with the Knitting Nannas in Narrabri, blocked railway tracks carrying coal trains, went to Parliament House in Canberra to educate politicians, blockaded Adani subsidiary Downer, and took the long train ride into Martin Place week after week to protest the insanity of Santos's Narrabri gas project.

He became a familiar sight on his walker outside the Channel Seven studio, educating Sydney-siders one on one.

I got to know him in the fights to save Gloucester from unconventional gas and coal, and to stop Santos in the Pilliga. But Bill was an integral part of innumerable campaigns, most of which came under the banner of climate change. He couldn't remember how many times he'd been arrested. His concern for environmental and social justice powered all that he did.

His gentle humour, integrity and passion moved all who met him.

As Bill put it: “People who are producing these fossil fuels and having them burned throughout the world, they're the enemy.”

Politically active throughout his life, Bill was a proud member of the NSW Greens.

Senior Greens figures paid tribute to Bill Ryan including NSW MP David Shoebridge who said: “Bill led a principled and inspiring life. We are celebrating the example he set throughout his life.”

Former Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon said: “It is an enormous loss. Bill set a high standard for all of us. Just last Friday he was with the Knitting Nannas at a climate protest in Martin Place.”

Climate campaigner and trouble-maker Jono Moylan said Bill “knew that change becomes unstoppable when enough people act together. He knew the power of peaceful civil disobedience.”

On social media, Jono paid tribute to his friend, saying: “You taught us to be resilient, you taught us to be generous, you taught us to be courageous and you taught us to be cantankerous when we need to be.

“Bill strongly believed in the power of people to create change. He believed in justice and treated everyone with equal respect. He was a thorn in the side of greed and short-sightedness while never losing his determination or cheeky sense of humour. We owe it all to Bill to carry on fighting until the world has moved on from fossil fuels.”

Fellow activist Annie Kia described Bill as an “inspirational” man with “Heart. Soul. Ethics. Resolve.”

“He was a very caring man,” said Bill's son Gary Ryan. “His family are very proud of what he has accomplished, and what an inspiration he has been to so many fellow activists.”

In 2018, Bill won the John Davis Climate Award, which was presented at Parliament House in Sydney, and two months ago he shared the inaugural John Kaye Memorial Award for Social Justice and Environmental Protection, alongside fellow activist legend Jack Mundey.

Bill leaves behind two proud sons, two grand-children and three great-grandchildren.

Vale Bill Ryan, a true Australian patriot whose courage and smile will be long-remembered.

[A shorter version of this obituary originally appeared in Echonetdaily.]

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