WASHINGTON — When Janna Little Ryan found out her husband, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, was going to be selected as the Republican vice presidential candidate, she made what her sister called a very smart decision: The family vacation would go on as planned.
So she and the couple's three children made a round of appearances with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney after the Aug. 11 announcement and then headed to a remote part of Colorado that has been a gathering place for her extended Oklahoma family.
“It was a place where there was no television, no telephones and limited cellphone coverage,” said Dana Little Jackson, Janna Little Ryan's younger sister, in a recent interview.
Janna and the children returned to Janesville, Wis., after the trip to find their home life would include Secret Service agents. The Ryans' eldest child, Liza, 10, started making cinnamon toast for them every morning, Jackson said.
To Jackson, the decision to go to Colorado was characteristic of Janna Little Ryan's grounded and family-first approach to life.
“That was such a great thing to do for the family … to get out of the media glare in that first week,'' Jackson said.
Janna's first task after a whirlwind month culminating in the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., was to get her kids settled in school in Wisconsin, Jackson said.
“She's an incredibly relaxed mom,” Jackson said. “I think that will help her in this adventure.”
“I have never seen her get flustered,” said former Oklahoma congressman Bill Brewster, who has known Janna Little Ryan since she was a child and hired her in the early 1990s as a legislative assistant in his Capitol Hill office.
Colin Chapman, who grew up with Janna in the Marshall County town of Madill and worked with her in Washington, agreed with Brewster and described his longtime friend as “calm, gracious and very unassuming in how she approaches life … She's always open to meeting people and talking to them.”
Chapman said he and Janna, now 43, participated in 4-H activities as kids. Janna showed sheep; he showed hogs and cattle.
“She did pretty good,” Chapman said. “I think she won a couple of trophies and plaques at the county show.”
Raised in a small town
That girl who, according to her sister, “lived in the barn,” went on to graduate from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the George Washington University law school in Washington. She was a tax attorney and lobbyist in Washington before she married Ryan and moved to Wisconsin.
That she could succeed at showing sheep in Oklahoma, at prestigious universities, in the competitive world of Washington lobbying and at raising a family in small-town Wisconsin is no surprise to the people who know her well.
Nor is it a surprise that she still loves going to Madill. Paul Ryan, an avid sportsman, also has expressed affection for the town and for Oklahoma.
“If you were raised in a small town and raised right, it's going to stick with you, and I think that certainly goes for Janna,'' Chapman said.
Jackson, who followed her sister to Washington and still lives here, says her sister is very much like their mother.
Their late mother, Prudence, went to Wellesley and graduated first in the 1968 University of Oklahoma law school class that included her husband, Dan, and now OU President David Boren. Boren married Dan Little's sister, Janna, now deceased, and their son, Dan, is now an Oklahoma congressman.
Besides practicing law, Prudence Little was involved in a range of civic activities in Madill. She was among the first members of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission and was chairman of the OU Foundation.
“Pru was a fantastic lady and a great lawyer,” Brewster said.
Dan Little has served on the OU Board of Regents and is now chairman of the board of trustees for the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics.
The couple had three daughters, Janna, Dana and Molly.
Janna went to grade school in Madill and then to boarding school in Austin, Texas, before attending Wellesley.
Starting a family
Brewster assigned Janna to focus on health care when she worked for him on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s. “She studied it and just became extremely knowledgeable,” he said.
She also served as a liaison to a health care advisory group Brewster had formed in Oklahoma. And she was going to law school in that period. Brewster described her as “a truly down-to-earth person” who never flaunted her family's wealth. She drove an older car, he said, and dressed nicely but not extravagantly.
She met Paul Ryan when she was working as a lobbyist, sometimes on a team with Brewster's former chief of staff, Pat Raffaniello. Among their clients were United Parcel Service and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“Professionally, Janna was always prepared to provide accurate and timely information to policymakers,” Raffaniello said. “On a personal level, it was a pleasure to work with such a bright and articulate colleague.”
Janna married Paul Ryan in Oklahoma City in 2000, and Janna gave up her successful career to move to Wisconsin.
“She was ready to start a family, and I think she saw Janesville as a wonderful place to raise a family,” said Jackson, Janna's sister, also an attorney and Wellesley graduate. “She wasn't someone who sat around and worried about what she was giving up.”
The Ryans have three children: Liza, 10, Charlie, 9, and Sam, 7.
“Being a congressional spouse — that's not an official job, but there are duties that come with that,” Jackson said. “She just kind of shifted her focus.”
Not a public person
Since her husband was added to the Republican ticket, Janna Little Ryan has appeared at some campaign events, and she spoke briefly at a breakfast the week of the Republican convention in Tampa.
“It was short and sweet. She's not a public speaker. She's not a public person,” Jackson said.
Jackson said she couldn't predict what her sister's role in the campaign would be but that her support would be “strong and unwavering.”
Chapman said Janna is smart enough to realize there are people paid during campaigns to “tear down other people's lives” and that she is strong enough to stand up to it and take care of the couple's kids.
If Romney and Ryan are elected, he said, “she will be a tremendous asset to the team, and I'm sure she'll find a few issues to be involved in and do a great job.
“A lot more people than just Marshall County can be proud of her.”