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PASSING OF A PIONEER // Ryder relished bumpy road

Florida's business history is rich in tales of visionaries, risk-takers and entrepreneurs who contributed mightily to the state's expansion.

In the early part of the century, movers and shakers such as Carl Fisher, George Merrick and Henry Plant were, respectively, major forces in the development of Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Tampa.

When the state's economy became more diversified, there were Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines, George Jenkins of Publix Super Markets, the Davis brothers of Winn-Dixie, the Mackle brothers of land development fame and Jim McLamore of Burger King, to mention a few.

But none was more colorful and dynamic than James A. Ryder, who died last week at 83. His is a bittersweet story of a young man of humble beginnings who created a transportation empire based on truck leasing, earned a fortune in the process and then lost it through his own unfortunate actions.

Ryder was what you might call an American original, a man with a vision who endured many personal and professional ups and downs but never lost his zest for life or his ability to charm others with his engaging personality.

I knew him pretty well. A few years ago, he asked if I would help him write a book about his life. While pleading lack of time for such an undertaking, I suggested other avenues he might pursue. And I cautioned him.

"Jim, to produce a book that sells, you'll have to tell both the bad and the good things about your life," I said. "Why do you want to go through all that?"

"Because I need the money," he replied.

He really did. After earning millions as a corporate empire builder, he gambled everything on an ill-advised venture that failed. At age 65, he turned down a bountiful retirement deal offered by Ryder System Inc. and elected to go into competition with the very company he had started and nurtured.

His timing was terrible. He pledged virtually all his considerable personal assets to start Jartran in 1978, shortly before the American economy encountered some of its worst inflation ever and sky-high interest rates to boot. In less than four years, Jartran was bankrupt and Jim Ryder's fortune was gone.

Ryder's best days were behind him. But what memories they held. Two episodes speak volumes about the man.

Once was in late 1962, when the world came perilously close to nuclear war. History knows that period as the Cuban missile crisis, and South Florida was a focal point of the confrontation between President Kennedy and Russia's Nikita Krushchev.

Ryder System was in the thick of the action as its irrepressible leader spent several sleepless days and nights directing a huge movement of trucks hauling men and equipment to the closest land area to the Cuban mainland. When it ended, Ryder was hospitalized with exhaustion for doing what he considered a patriotic duty.

Soon afterward, he became embroiled in an internal corporate battle in which two rebellious directors tried to oust him. At the time, he controlled less than 17 percent of the company's stock and he appeared vulnerable. But overcoming obstacles was one of his strong points, and he chose to fight.

His older brother, Ralph, an important ally from the start in the 1930s, joined with another colleague, Roland Reedy, to buy up 100,000 shares of stock while lining up support from undecided directors.

At a tense board meeting just before Christmas 1962, Ryder prevailed, crushing the coup and its two organizers. He was still in, and they were out.

A few years later, to everyone's surprise, Ryder invited one of the ousted rebels to rejoin the board, explaining: "Heck, I don't hold grudges."

Reporters love quotes like that, and Ryder produced many. Asked once about his battle with the bottle, he said: "I don't gamble. I don't cheat, steal, lie, and I hate people who do. But I drink some."

Explaining the failure of Jartran, he pointed to high interest rates, saying: "I never counted on 20 percent money."

In a 1972 encounter with Coral Gables police, Ryder was accused of pointing a shotgun at them. Later, he said: "I've gotten a lot smarter, and I surely don't go around with guns anymore."

All through his rise and fall in big business, he was just plain Jim, the poor boy with no college degrees who made it big in typical Horatio Alger fashion. Unlike Alger's plucky heroes, however, Ryder's career was a roller-coaster ride.

Ryder shrugged off his misfortune, telling a friend, "Plenty of people make it and lose it. I had a good time."

For years after the fall _ and until his death _ his successors at Ryder System kept him afloat financially, even though they had no legal obligation to do so. Compassion for the man who made it all happen overcame any resentment over his abrupt departure from the company and its ill-fated aftermath.

_ James Russell is a columnist for the Miami Herald.