Nation & World

Death of Idaho professor shocks campus

Vibrant. Alive. Colorful. Kind. A woman "who lives in her own universe, and it's an awesome place to visit."

Devastated. Numb. Hurt. Shocked. "In disbelief."

That is how co-workers, family, friends, and students of Boise State University linguistics professor Mary Ellen Ryder reacted Tuesday, less than a day after she died in a house fire in Southeast Boise Monday night.

The news of Ryder's death, the only one in Monday's blaze, quietly rippled across the campus.

Ryder, 56, a two-time breast cancer survivor, was described as a "cat lover, an amateur folk singer and guitarist, a wife, a sister and a daughter," in a 2005 newsletter published by the BSU Women's Center.

She taught for 20 years at BSU, becoming a beloved professor whose students sometimes became life-long friends.

"She was a special person and a born teacher," said her husband, Pete Ryder, Tuesday as he sat on a park bench on the BSU campus. "She loved her students, and she loved to teach. She was pessimistic about a few things, like politics, but she was optimistic about everything else."

On Monday night Pete Ryder watched his Southeast Boise home burn to the ground, unable to get back inside.

With still visible injuries on his head and face Tuesday, he said he felt "numb" over the loss of Mary Ellen.

"I am still trying to grapple with what happened, and what will continue to happen," he said.

Across the BSU lawn, Jake Hansen was having a hard time, too.

The 25-year-old senior and English major said he couldn't process the fact that Mary Ellen Ryder wouldn't be there to teach his class Tuesday.

"Of all the mundane teachers we have to deal with, it really sucks that she was the one who had to go," Hansen said, moments after sharing a hug with another student who had just learned what happened.

BSU assistant English professor Bruce Ballenger worked with Ryder for 15 years.

He said Ryder's ability to make a difficult class like linguistics - where, simply put, students learn how words go together by examining sentence structure and grammar - so enjoyable for so many students was remarkable.

In fact, she was the kind of teacher who added extra seats in her classes just to accommodate students.

Ballenger said he found out about her death shortly after seeing faculty members standing in groups, talking quietly about what happened.

"All I can say is the whole department is devastated ... this is a terrible blow to everyone," Ballenger said.

"We are all just reeling from this."

BSU President Bob Kustra said, "As a teacher, she has spread the joy of learning and discovery to countless students. She will be missed as a vital member of our campus community."

Ryder moved to the Boise area from San Diego with her husband to take the Boise State job. The couple had been married for 25 years and had lived in their home on Immigrant Pass Court for the last decade, Pete Ryder said.

"(Boise) is our home," he said. "We love it here."

Related stories from Vida en el Valle