Elizabeth Michelle Ryan was born on Dec. 27, 1986, in Halifax to Michelle, who worked with the federal government, and Mike Ryan, a successful appliance salesman and part-time home builder. Her brother Jonathon was just 18 months older, but far from resenting the new baby, Michelle says, he became her protector. “If she was crawling toward the cat food dish, he would pick it up and totter on his tiptoes to put it up on the counter. It was funny.” As a child, Mike says, if someone gave Jonathon a candy, he would ask for another for Elizabeth. Once when a magician offered the little boy a certificate for assisting him on stage, he refused it because his sister couldn’t have one too. Elizabeth’s parents were also protective. When the children were still small, the family moved from the Dartmouth, N.S., suburb of Colby Village to a leafy 25-acre property near the village of Enfield, about half an hour’s drive—and a world away—from the city. In Enfield, “We could control their upbringing,” Mike says. “We were one kilometre off a dirt road that went nowhere.”
Because of where they lived, both parents put about 75,000 km a year on their cars driving the kids everywhere, which suited Mike fine. “The nice part of all that driving is if they were going to hang out at a mall, we knew it because we had to drive them there,” he says. Jonathon was a hockey player, but Elizabeth abhorred sports: faced with an outing on the T-ball diamond, she would not even try to hit the ball. Instead, she became a dancer. Starting at 6, Elizabeth, who was as slim as her brother was burly, studied tap, ballet, hip hop and jazz at three different schools. “She was very fluid and soft. Genteel,” says a long-time teacher, Lauri Morash-Trefry. “Her mom was always after her to emote.” Elizabeth practised seven or eight times a week and attended dance camps as far away as New York City, where she did, eventually, audition for the Rockettes.
In spite of her love of dancing, Elizabeth had another, more prosaic, career plan. By Grade 2, she decided to be a teacher, maybe working with special needs children. “She always wanted to save the world,” Michelle says. Elizabeth rescued a cat, Lily, and dogs that had been abused, like her border collie, Dakota, and nurtured her pet mouse, Duck. “She was very kind-hearted,” Jonathon says. “It took nothing to make her smile.”
The Ryans were close knit. Mike and Michelle opened their own cabinet business near home so they could always be there for the kids. Still, as she grew up, Elizabeth turned from what her mom calls a “little Klingon” to a tall, confident girl with bright blue eyes and a wide grin. In her teens, a friend said, she became “the girl tons of girls wanted to be.” She was so pretty, her brother says, that in sweatpants or heels, “she could pull off anything.” In her gang, many of them dancers, Elizabeth was a leader. “When she decided to do something,” Michelle says, “she did it.” One thing she wanted to do was travel to a Third World country to help the underprivileged. Her dad was too worried about her to let her go. “I said no,” Mike says. “I always said no.”
After graduating from Hants East Rural High School in 2005, Elizabeth set off for Acadia University for an arts B.A. Then sheswitched to sciences and decided to go into medicine. Meanwhile, she volunteered for a school program called S.M.I.L.E. (Sensory Motor Instructional Leadership Experience), spending her time with a special needs boy and a childlike 40-year-old woman. She also worked on routines with the school’s cheerleaders. Says Mike, “She took on too much. She crashed.” By Christmas 2006, Elizabeth quit school and moved to Sudbury, Ont., where she taught at the Happiness is Dancing Studio. She began to plan a trip to Africa. This past July, she went to Paris for a 16-day holiday with her brother. There, although Mike describes her as frugal, she went to Louis Vuitton twice before blowing $1,500 on a handbag.
She and Jonathon were home for only a few weeks before she left for three months in Tanzania to teach school with a volunteer-travel group called Cross-Cultural Solutions. Mike tried to talk her out of it, but stopped short of begging. She was an adult, he says, and she had saved the cost of the trip—$8,000—herself. Every day for three weeks she emailed her parents about her progress. They replied, telling her, in capital letters, to BE SAFE. On Friday, Sept. 12, Elizabeth was riding in a van on a dirt road when a boulder bounced out of a truck ahead. The van driver lost control. Neither he nor any of the other six passengers was badly injured. “Here, she would have been wearing a seat belt,” Michelle says. “She probably gave it up to someone else.” Elizabeth was killed. She was 21.