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James Ryder, founder of truck leasing firm

Published Oct. 1, 2005

James A. Ryder, who pioneered the full-service truck leasing business by founding what became Ryder Systems in the midst of the Great Depression, died Tuesday. He was 83.

The former trucking tycoon suffered a stroke Friday and died at Doctors Hospital of complications from that illness. He had battled heart disease for years.

"I'm kind of in shock," Diane Ryder, his widow, said Tuesday. "He was doing much better. The doctors were congratulating themselves and we were congratulating ourselves thinking we had pulled out of another one."

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1913, Mr. Ryder moved with his family to Miami six years later. He attended Miami Edison High School and graduated, "by the skin of his teeth" as his wife tells it, in 1932.

He started out in business a year later as a Miami truck driver hauling materials used to build up Miami Beach during the Depression. He moved into the truck-leasing business in 1937, winning a contract with a now-defunct beer company to distribute their product.

Ryder System, the Miami-based corporation that grew out of Ryder's small company, pulled in $5.5-billion in revenue last year from operations in nine countries in North and South America and Europe.

He had little contact with the company in recent years, but his name can still be seen on the familiar yellow trucks belonging to the consumer rental division Ryder System unloaded last year.

His accomplishments won him a place in the Automotive Hall of Fame in Midland, Mich., alongside the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

"Jim Ryder was an entrepreneurial genius who knew how to dream," said Ryder System chairman and CEO Anthony Burns. "He was a man who cast a very long shadow, a man who, during his active years, made a dramatic difference in the business world."

A colorful entrepreneur who turned down a $100,000-a-year pension when he left his creation, Mr. Ryder was never able to re-create the kind of success he had in his early years. He lost much of his wealth in subsequent business failures and payments to three ex-wives.

His biggest failure was Jartran, a trucking competitor he started when he retired from Ryder Systems in 1978. Jartran went in and out of solvency and eventually pulled Mr. Ryder into bankruptcy.

He went from a life of luxury, with private yachts and jets, to more modest surroundings in South Miami.

He gave up alcohol after a 1972 run-in with police during which he chased officers from his mansion with a loaded shotgun and led them on a chase through Coral Gables.

Mr. Ryder's widow said the Jartran disaster and the successive failures of other startups he had a hand in were painful to her husband but that his spirit could never be broken.

"I think it's a gambler _ they say no matter how much a gambler loses they can't seem to realize it, they always feel they're going to win the next round," she said.

In later years, Mr. Ryder's business acumen was dimmed and he seemed to be pulled into ventures he would have passed on when he was one of Miami's power brokers.

"It used to be our phone number was the closest thing to a gold mine in South Miami, with different people with every hair-brained idea calling," Diane Ryder said.

She said her husband's love of sailing is what she will remember most about their 18 years together.

"The image I'll always remember is him sailing off Cat Cay in the Bahamas, with his dog," she said, breaking into a laugh. "We called him Capt. Bligh, but he was an excellent sailor."

Mr. Ryder is also survived by his elder brother, Ralph, 86, of Miami, and a son, James Jr., of Juno Beach. Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, at Plymouth Congregational Church, in Miami's Coconut Grove. Arrangements are being handled by Plummer-Ahern Funeral Home in Miami.