The best way to honor thy father is to embrace his hard-earned wisdom and make it your own.
So it came to pass that on a warm, spring day last June, Bo Ryan pulled up in front of St. Mary’s Care Center on the south side of Madison and went inside.
He made his way to Room 114 of the nursing home, popped his head in the door and gave the five strangers gathered there the present of a lifetime.
Ryan, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach, was acting on the counsel of his father, Butch, who always told him that the best gift he could give to someone is his time.
Ryan not only gave that priceless favor to Barb Nordeng, her husband, Rich, and their three sons, he provided hugs, laughter and an almost indescribable sense of joy.
The visit was a surprise, arranged by Eric, the oldest son who works in data services at the UW School of Medicine. He will never forget the look on his mother’s face when Ryan walked through the door and immediately came over to her wheelchair to give her a hug.
“Quite a magical moment,” Eric said.
For nearly an hour, Ryan carried the conversation, making Barb the unquestioned focus. She’d suffered a hemorrhagic stroke a month earlier, a byproduct of her brain cancer, but the 68-year-old mother and former kindergarten and preschool teacher hung with it.
Neither knew it at the time of the visit, but the two had a lot in common.
Turns out she was born in Platteville and graduated from UW-Platteville in 1967, which instantly generated a stream of shared memories and acquaintances. Of course, Ryan coached the Pioneers from 1984 to ’99 and led them to four NCAA Division III titles.
Turns out Barb and her husband were huge fans of the UW men’s basketball program going back to the mid-1970s when Bill Cofield was the coach. Ryan’s first college coaching job was as an assistant on Cofield’s staff from 1976 to ’82.
Barb and Rich grew up in Janesville and were high school sweethearts. Rich, 68, got his undergraduate and law degree at UW. In the process of raising three boys — Eric is 43, Brad is 38 and Greg is 31 — they became part of the old “Faithful 5,000” that showed up at the Field House to watch the Badgers.
“I remember going to games in the not-so-packed Field House, dancing to the Budweiser song,” Eric said.
During the visit, Ryan spoke candidly about the upcoming season, the players he had and how they looked. He said forward Frank Kaminsky would be much improved. He mentioned how much he liked the freshmen, particularly forward Nigel Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig. He said nothing about going to the NCAA Final Four.
“He didn’t go quite that far,” Eric said of Ryan, “but he was excited about the season.”
The details of that visit resonate now for a variety of reasons.
Nine days after Ryan held Barb’s hand during a photo op and hugged her goodbye, she died.
“My mom’s passing has been very hard on me,” Eric said, “but that’s one thing I can kind of hang on to. I know it’s a special gift I gave her there.”
Eric said he’d thought about contacting Ryan for a long time, but acted only after his mom’s stroke and the realization that time was short.
“His willingness to come out and see my mom that day was beyond my expectations,” Eric said. “For him to stay as long as he did, to do and say everything he did that day, is beyond anything I could have imagined.
“So, when I see him today, that’s the first thing I think about. What a nice man. What a willing person.”
When Ryan lost his father two months later, Eric sat down and wrote a letter to the editor recounting the impact of that June visit on him and his family. He didn’t forward it until after Ryan and the Badgers rose up and secured a spot in the NCAA Final Four last weekend.
There has been much speculation that Ryan has gotten some otherworldly help to reach his first Final Four at the Division I level. He and his father, a former coach, were regular revelers at the event. In fact, UW clinched a semifinal berth opposite Kentucky on what would have been Butch’s 90th birthday.
Ryan may be getting more cosmic assistance than originally thought.
“In my mind, she’s with the team, influencing what they’re going through right now,” Eric said of his mom. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Butch weren’t working together on this one.”
It’s the gift — Ryan’s time — that keeps on giving.
“It’s obvious that he listened to his dad,” Eric said.