When James Ryan came to Gatlinburg more than 50 years ago he did more than build a business that satisfied the sweet tooth of tourists and locals alike.
The owner of The Donut Friar, who died Jan. 7 after a brief battle with cancer, also left a legacy with his contributions to the community, particularly the students at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School.
“When we grew up all the kids from school would come over before school and get donuts, and after school before they got on the bus,” daughter Kathleen Greely said.
He enjoyed teaching the youth some basic life lessons, including manners as they asked for the tempting treats that drew them to the store.
“When the kids came over to the store he always made them say please and thank you. He taught a lot of kids manners,” eldest son Rick Ryan said.
He expected those children who knew the rules about the basic courtesy to abide by it, too.
“If they didn’t say ‘may I please have’ when they learned (the rules) he would say ‘next,’ and he wouldn’t wait on them,” Greely said.
Greely said many teenagers had their first job at The Donut Friar, which was one of the first businesses to open in The Village. It is the second oldest continuously run food establishment operated by its original family in Sevier County.
Greely said he encouraged many teens to go to college, start bank accounts and other steps into adulthood.
“He encouraged everyone to be their best,” she said.
He also started a tradition where he gave apple tree saplings to students at Pi Beta Phi. Greely said he picked apple trees, because it was something the children could eat.
“He did that up until about 10 years ago,” Rick Ryan said.
To honor his memory the family is donating two apple trees to be planted at Mynatt Park, which is being renovated. They hope to have a memorial presentation when the city has a grand opening for the park.
Jim Ryan was a Korean War veteran, having served in the 24th Army Medical Battalion with the 24th Infantry Division. Using the GI Bill, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, working several years as a manager for a fertilizer company.
He passed a donut shop every day and, with visions of opening his own shop someday, approached the owner about working for him so he could learn.
“He worked for him on the weekends for free for quite a bit of time,” Rick Ryan said.
Rick Ryan said his father had learned while studying business that the three most profitable items in the food industry were pizza, pancakes and donuts. Not interested in pizza, and knowing the pancake market was already wrapped up in Gatlinburg by the Pancake Pantry, James Ryan looked to donuts.
In 1969, he and former wife Carolyn ‘Lynne’ Jessup Ryan took a leap of faith, heading to Gatlinburg with their five children to open The Donut Friar.
All the children worked at the shop eventually, including Peg, the youngest, who was 5 when they made the move to Gatlinburg.
“When I could count back change, oh yeah, I was working,” Peg Pilgrim mused.
She and Kathleen both recalled taking samples out to the sidewalks along the Parkway to lure people to The Village.
“There were only six stores when we opened in 1969. It was hard when we first started to get people to go back there,” Greely said.
In 2019, a 50th anniversary event was held for The Village. At that time the city of Gatlinburg presented a proclamation to Jim Ryan.
In addition to his business, Ryan enjoyed golf and was a patron of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, the Smoky Mountain Children’s Home and other individuals and institutions. He donated time to
Habitat for Humanity for over 25 years.
When the family broke the news of James Ryan’s death on The Donut Friar’s Facebook page, fans both near and far expressed sadness and shared their stories of how The Donut Friar became a family tradition for them.
“I am so very happy that Jim Ryan decided to make Gatlinburg his home oh so many years ago. It is been a delight to know his family. He will be greatly missed. The family will be in my thoughts and prayers,” said Kathy Williams in one of hundreds of posts.
Many recalled the giant popsicle he provided for field day at the school. Weighing several hundred pounds, the ‘popsicle stick’ was 2x4s and pieces were broken off and served in cups to the students.
An avid traveler, he completed numerous bike trips across Europe with wife Shirley. Many of his trips were with daughter Kathleen.
In addition to Kathleen, Peg and Rick, other children include Kevin Ryan and Thomas Ryan.