Roger Ryman, a ‘Real-life’ Cowboy From Nebraska, Dies at 70

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Two decades before the balladeer Willie Nelson warned, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” 8-year-old Roger Ryman was well on his way.

He idolized Roy Rogers, and in 1958 won a letter-writing contest that entitled him to attend a performance by Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, at the Nebraska State Fair.

He spent summers in junior high and high school in the prairies and dunes of the Sandhills in north-central Nebraska working on the ranch that his great-grandfather had homesteaded.

He dreamed of becoming a cowboy, his daughter, Cindy Ryman Yost, recalled. And he did.

“Our dad was a real life cowboy, ranching and roping in the Sandhills of Nebraska and the mountains of northeastern California for 30 years,” Ms. Ryman Yost said.

But after all those decades of rough-riding and injuries while herding cattle, he earned a real estate license and sold properties in California, Florida and Arkansas before returning to Lincoln, Neb., where he grew up.

A few years ago, Mr. Ryman overcame a rare form of cancer and had open-heart surgery. Since then, he had been exercising, lost weight and was hewing to a healthier diet. He was working part-time as a driver at an auto dealership where he asked not to be scheduled if any colleagues contracted Covid-19 given his vulnerability to disease, his daughter said.

He left work early on Oct. 16 because he was feeling ill. Only then, his daughter said, was he told that a co-worker had tested positive for the coronavirus eight days earlier. Mr. Ryman was advised to get tested, too.

Thirty-six hours after learning that he had tested positive, and only three days after developing symptoms, Mr. Ryman died at his home, where his daughter found him on the morning of Oct. 20 after he failed to respond to telephone calls and text messages. He was 70.

Roger Allen Ryman was born on Nov. 30, 1949, in Lincoln to Leslie Ryman, a radio and television repairman, and Myrtle (Birt) Ryman, a school office clerk and homemaker.

His great-grandfather, Harry, founded Ryman Brothers cattle ranch with his sons, three brothers who married three sisters and staked homestead claims in the early 1900s. Roger considered becoming a history teacher, but his summers working at the ranch persuaded him to stick with the family tradition. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

In 1968, he married Nancy Stier; their marriage ended in divorce. In addition to their daughter, he is survived by their sons, Justin Ryman and Tony Willis; two sisters, Deloris Oltman and Connie Hanken; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Ryman had a gift for telling stories and playing poker. He coached high school basketball and served on the school board, Ms. Ryman Yost said. “He worked incredibly hard and he was a man of faith.”

But he never forgot his life as a cowboy.

“I loved horses and the way you feel when you swing into the saddle, pull your collar up and your hat down, and ride off. The feeling of independence, the brisk air in your face, you and horse as one,” he wrote in 2015 in a collection of letters to his grandchildren. “There is no other feeling like it in the world.”

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