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Ryans: The Kennedys of Janesville

August 12, 2012|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • Rep. Paul Ryan and his family wave to the crowd in Norfolk, Va.
Rep. Paul Ryan and his family wave to the crowd in Norfolk, Va. (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo…)

JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Dark-haired and athletic, Irish Catholic and connected. Youthful, successful, sophisticated and large.

It's not so hard to see why, in this small town, the Ryan clan drew comparisons to another famous family.

“We always compared them to the Kennedys,” said Jan Campbell, who rushed out to the curb at 7 a.m. Saturday to put up a sign supporting her neighbor, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, and his surprise ascent onto the Republican presidential ticket.

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With their easy charm, good looks and size -- Campbell counts 13 Ryans living in the area -- the family and all its many branches just seemed to fit the bill. "They even play touch football games on Thanksgiving," Campbell said.

In choosing Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney put the spotlight on this industrial hub settled in the farmland between Madison, Wis., and Chicago. Although it has Democratic leanings, the area largely has embraced its homegrown Republican firebrand. Ryan's well-established and prominent family probably have played a role.

Ryan's great-grandfather started a major construction firm, and his father was a prominent attorney until his death when Ryan was in his teens.

The family was known as sporty and of enough means to travel West for hiking and skiing excursions.

"They do have that aura," said Jackie Wood, a family friend who owns the building that houses Ryan's congressional office. "They're all tall and good-looking and in shape."

Romney is no doubt trying to capitalize on that energy by picking Ryan, who at 42 is the same age John F. Kennedy  was when he launched his 1960 presidential campaign.

But it's not just youth that some supporters see as Kennedyesque in their local candidate. David Barry said it is partly Ryan's patriotism and belief that he's improving the country that reminded him of the former president.

“He always reminded me of a young Jack Kennedy,” said Barry, who lived across the street from Ryan in the elegant Courtyard Historical District for most of a decade.

The comparison isn't perfect, folks here note.

This being the Midwestern version of Camelot, it was not all yachts on the Cape for Ryan, who was one of four children. He reportedly flipped burgers at McDonald's as a high schooler. He's now an avid bowhunter. And it's hard to picture Kennedy digging heavy metal rock, Ryan's music of choice.

Perhaps it's just that this town has a thing for the Kennedys. Jack and Jackie Kennedy traveled through Janesville during the hard-fought 1960 Democratic primary campaign -- back when the town was in the political spotlight.

On Saturday, when Wood walked downtown as the Ryan news spread, reporters hustled on the sidewalk and the feeling was "almost exhilarating," she said.

"I thought, 'Holy cow!' Well, I guess we're on the radar!"  

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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