By Rose Quinn
Published in the Monday, October 28, 2021 edition of the Delaware County Daily Times
Ryan Ferris envisioned himself as a family man and a successful attorney.
It was October 1998. Ryan was 14½ years old and writing a paper for his eighth-grade English class at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Grade School in Aston.
A month later, early on Nov. 6, Ryan Ferris died a hero saving his mother, Roberta, his brother, Matthew, and his sister, Brigid, after their Aston home was intentionally set on fire.
No charges have been filed and there are no suspects in the nearly 23-year-old arson homicide. An investigation by the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division and the Aston Township Police Department remains open.
“Of course, it’s about himself,” Roberta Ferris, 73, of Aston, said of the bittersweet keepsake, 211 words that helped her find strength to move forward without her beloved son. Reading the paper still soothes her heart to this day.
“A mother never gets over losing a child. Not a day goes by that he is not in my mind and heart, but I have gone on,” Roberta Ferris said.
For most who knew him, Ryan Ferris is forever the charismatic teenager with wild curly hair, twinkling blue/green eyes and an impish grin who was devoted to his family, his Catholic faith, his legion of friends, and having fun.
To Roberta Ferris, Ryan was her “beautifully imperfect son who had a perfect heart,” full of grace and mischief. A boy who was as comfortable in his sports jersey as his altar server alb.
- Ferris, 14 ½, was killed in an arson fire at his family home, 38 New Road, Aston, Pennsylvania, early on Friday, Nov. 6, 1998.
- Arson homicide investigation is ongoing by Detective Thomas Giancristoforo III of the Aston Township Police Department, and the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division.
- Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Giancristoforo at 610-497-2633, CID at 610-891-4700, or 911.
‘A million memories’
Ryan was open about his faith, and often discussed religion with his mother, including his thoughts about being a Catholic priest. Their best conversations happened when they were alone in the car.
“He was very compassionate. He really cared about other people’s feelings,” Roberta Ferris said.
Except when it came to playing sports, according to his father.
“He didn’t like to lose,” said Jerry Ferris, a Kimberly-Clark retiree, adding that Ryan was learning how to enjoy the game, win or lose.
Jerry Ferris, describing himself and Ryan as sports and movie buddies, saw Ryan beginning to spread his wings, test his independence.
“I was very proud of him,” Jerry said. “I still am.”
Ryan was overly competitive, loved sugar, and could talk a mile a minute, his mother said. He was looking forward to attending Cardinal O’Hara High School, and he was excited about turning 15 and getting closer to his driver’s license.
Ryan had an interest in business, and he liked to earn money, Roberta said. “He was a hustler,” his dad added, recalling how Ryan would find odd jobs even on vacation.
For his siblings, Travis Dobry, 49, Matthew Ferris, 41, and Brigid Ferris, 34, Ryan lives on in a treasure trove of stories they now share with his nephews Elijah, Liam, and Ryan, and nieces Nola, Piper and Sabina.
“I remember Ryan being very animated, very expressive,” said Travis, who can still hear his teenage brother belting out his favorite songs, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by the Beatles, in his head.
“Ryan seemed comfortable in his own skin at an early age. He was open about who he was … He had a style all of his own,” Travis said.
“There are a million memories when I look back on what me, Roberta and all the kids have been through,” Jerry Ferris said.
“God was important to Ryan. His faith was important to him.
I do wonder where he would be now. Who knows if he would have been a priest? … For me, Ryan will always be 14 ½.”
Ryan Ferris titled his class paper “Ryan Montz!”
Like Ferris, Montz was born on January 20 – but in 1973, 11 years before Ferris.
Montz is smart, athletic, hardworking, and altruistic – admirable traits that Ferris himself had in abundance. Montz is a successful lawyer and family man. Not a Catholic priest. Or a dentist, another path Ryan Ferris thought about.
“He grew up quickly and graduated high school with a 4.8 (GPA) and earned himself (an) athletic and academic scholarship. While in college, Ryan studied law and graduated successfully,” Ferris wrote of Montz. “After college, Ryan was offered a job in a brand-new firm in the heart of Philadelphia. He accepted the job eagerly and willingly. He thought it would be great to start out in a new firm where he could work his way to the top.”
Ferris goes on to describe Montz his eighth year at the Jameson firm, being “well-established with a home and family,” and being offered the position of president and part ownership in the firm.
“During his 12 years of service in the firm’s presidency, he did many things. The most notable are his expansion of the firm and the foundation he started in honor of the Jameson Firm.”
Three years after retiring from the firm, Montz bought a line of banks. “And shortly after sold two of them and built one hospital and burn center to go with it,” Ferris wrote.
In closing, Ferris described the retired Montz as having houses in Philadelphia, Erie, and Aston, adding, “Don’t be surprised if you see him holding a fundraiser or banquet, because he hasn’t stopped yet.”
Tragically for Ryan Ferris, there was no time to make big life decisions.
A special welcome
Ryan Ferris was born at the former Booth Maternity Center on Jan. 20, 1984, with his father and two brothers in the delivery room, along with Jerry’s sister, Sheila Whiteside.
“The whole family was there … this was kind of special,” Roberta Ferris said. Brigid was born in 1986.
“He was a happy baby,” Roberta recalled, adding that Ryan was given her maiden name.
Mom and dad brought Ryan home to Collingdale, where the family lived on Hillside Avenue for 13 years.
“He was the most beautiful baby. His eyes were sky blue and his cheeks, you wanted to pinch them,” recalled Janet Greene, 70, who lived two doors away from the Ferris’ on Hillside.
“He lit up my life,” said Greene, recalling their many excursions to Booths’ Corner Farmers Market.
Because of their age difference, Travis often babysat his siblings, time he looks back on with fondness because it was time for them to bond.
Travis liked that Ryan looked up to him at times, and when Travis became a dad, Ryan loved being an uncle. The Ryan Ferris Friends page on Facebook was started by Travis as way to share photos and memories of his young brother.
A ‘New’ beginning
Ryan was around 5 when his parents decided their family needed more growing room. Jerry’s mom, the late Sue Ferris, was a realtor and found a place in Chester Heights. But that address was short lived once Roberta and Jerry “fell in love” with the old saltbox house at 38 New Road, a stone’s throw from St. Francis de Sales parish in neighboring Aston.
In the nine years they lived across the street, St. Francis church and school were a special part of the Ferris family, especially for Ryan. Now, Ryan is buried there.
“He did everything there was to do, played every sport except football, and he played well,” Roberta Ferris said. “Ryan was extremely outgoing. You couldn’t hold him back.”
When Ryan got interested in golf, he fashioned a course in the backyard. Though he was saving to buy clubs, a local contractor gave Ryan an old set and bag.
“Ryan was always kind, fun spirited and happy all the time. He loved baseball,” recalled Tricia O’Kane, Ryan’s first-grade teacher at St. Francis. “I remember he asked a lot of questions about the Catholic faith and was eager to learn more about religion.”
Ryan became an altar server as soon as he was old enough, and he was also the youngest member of the men’s prayer group at St. Francis, according to his mother.
“He liked all the old traditions. He liked litanies, holy cards and Stations of the Cross … He was listening to the Holy Souls Hour on the radio since he was 7,” Roberta Ferris said.
Ryan loved Christmas, but his favorite holiday was Easter week, from Holy Thursday through Sunday. He could quote catechism. He wore a scapular, even though it itched. His mom would find them in the laundry – along with broken rosary beads.
Ryan was ecstatic when he made his First Holy Communion, and even more following his Confirmation, according to Roberta Ferris. No one was surprised when Ryan chose a priest as his Confirmation sponsor. But choosing Martin for his Confirmation name – after St. Martin, de Porres, a Black Spaniard who ministered to the slaves brought from Africa – had a twist.
“Mom, he could be in two places at once,” she recalled Ryan blurting one day, referring to de Porres’ ability to bilocate.
“That’s why Ryan liked him,” Roberta Ferris said.
His parents recalled numerous times when they went looking for Ryan, only to find him in church, alone and in the dark, sitting before the altar.
Ryan told his mom, “It’s where I get my energy,” she said.
Ryan was around 12 when he joined brother Matthew at a Catholic youth conference in Steubenville, Ohio. When the priest called for anyone who had “a calling” to the priesthood to come to the stage, Matt said, “Ryan just sprinted down the aisle.”
Prior to that moment, Matt did not know Ryan had thoughts of being a priest.
Among Roberta Ferris’ other mementos is a letter, dated March 5, 1998, from Ryan to a pen pal in Reading whom Ryan knew had a calling for the priesthood.
“I think that is great. I, too, have been trying to discern, since I was about 12 what God was calling me to do,” Ryan wrote. “I hope it is to be a priest for that is really what I want to be.”
Even at his age, Roberta said, “Ryan had a way of bringing Christ to people in a joyful way, without ever being preachy.”
When she could not sleep, Brigid said she would crawl in bed with Ryan, and they would pick a name of a family member or friend and pray for them.
“It was Ryan’s idea. It was like a game,” his sister said. “It’s a sweet memory.”
Matthew, who was 18 when Ryan died, said his brother is always in his thoughts. One of his favorite memories is fishing with Ryan in the bay at Beach Haven, New Jersey.
“There is life before the fire, and life after the fire,” he said.
On the eve of the fire, Jerry was working the overnight shift at Kimberly-Clark, and Travis, a married father, was at his home in Glenolden.
The rest of the Ferris family retired to bed. Ryan and Matt were in their separate bedrooms in the attic. Roberta and Brigid were in a bedroom one floor below, with their two dogs, a 100-pound Irish wolfhound mix named Homey and a Bichon Frise named Elmo, and a black cat named Blackie.
Next thing Roberta knew, it was the middle of the night and Ryan was at her bedside.
“Mom, mom, there’s a fire,” she recalled him saying.
By then, the first floor of the house was consumed by fire. Roberta wanted Ryan to stay in the room with her and Brigid and start calling out the window for help. First, he had to go back and wake up Matt, he told his mother.
“Wake up Matt and come right back,” Roberta told Ryan. “He said, ‘OK, mom.’ And that was it.”
Roberta had no way of knowing how fast the fire was moving.
“I knew we didn’t have any choice but to jump out the window,” she said.
According to Roberta, Brigid safely jumped out the second-floor window – gaining courage only after little Elmo was dropped and landed on all four paws.
Roberta, frantic thinking she might have just sent her daughter to her death, said she started to make her way out the window back first, so she could watch for Ryan and Matt to come through the bedroom door.
“I’m hanging on to the windowsill and watching for them and I hear a crash … then I see Matt come head-first out of his bedroom window …a small attic window,” hitting the air conditioner on the way down, breaking his fall, she said.
“I waited for what seemed like forever for Ryan to come out next,” she said.
Ryan, from inside his bedroom, was heard by Matthew praying the Hail Mary, “in the most excruciating way,” Roberta would later learn.
Roberta Ferris, who broke her back in the fall, was in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital when a nurse confirmed that Ryan did not survive.
Ryan Ferris died of thermal burns and smoke inhalation.
“I can still picture him standing at the bedroom door, in his boxer shorts,” Roberta said of the last time she saw Ryan alive.
Homey and Blackie also perished in the fire, along with a cockatiel, hermit crabs and a hamster.
Roberta, with the help of a parish nun, planned Ryan’s funeral from her hospital bed. She wanted him dressed in his white altar server alb, with a scapular around his neck and a rosary in his hands.
While the family had a private viewing at St. Francis Church, the public service was at the nearby St. Thomas the Apostle Church to accommodate the crowd.
“It was standing room only and not a dry eye to be had,” Deirdre O’Brien, 39, a certified nursing assistant at the Assisi House, recalled of the services. Paired with Ryan back in the day, they were considered the “A” team of altar servers at St. Francis.
“Ryan is my go-to when I pray,” O’Brien said, confident he is listening based on some of her answered prayers.
“He was an extraordinary young man. He had a tremendous influence over people when he was alive,” recalled the Rev. Monsignor Charles P. Vance, who as then-pastor at St. Francis was the main celebrant among seven priests on the altar for Ryan’s funeral Mass. “His faith came out in his tremendous act of sacrifice he made in saving his family.”
Ryan Ferris is buried in the St. Francis de Sales Church cemetery.
‘Larger than life’
“Sometimes you hear people say someone is larger than life, Ryan was one of those people,” said Maura Shea, a mother of seven. Though Ryan was friends with one of her sons, the whole Shea family grew to love him.
Daughter Kathleen Shea, a 33-year-old resident of South Philadelphia who works in public health research, recalled Ryan as down to earth, and having a knack for diffusing situations with humor.
Cousin Bridget Spangler of California spent many wonderful weeks with the Ferris’ at Beach Haven, where she grew up.
“Ryan was a very sweet soul. He was a crazy, whacky teenager, too,” Spangler said, noting that when he wasn’t in the water swimming or boating, he was busy doing things like winning the weekly miniature golf tournaments.
Anita Blanda, another mother of one of Ryan’s friends, recalled Ryan’s love of the Atlanta Braves, and his endless teasing because her allegiance belonged to the Philadelphia Phillies. She still gets emotional when she talks about Ryan, including his great smile, the way he loved the pork ribs her mother put in her spaghetti sauce, and how he called her father “Mr. Costanza” because he thought he looked like the TV character on “Seinfeld.”
Rich “RJ” Hinderhofer, 38, knew Ryan from the Aston-Middletown Little League, where they played for the Wildcats. For two years before Ryan’s death, they were best friends.
“He was the most genuine 14-year-old you would ever meet,” said Hinderhofer. “He was passionate about the church, and he mentioned a couple times in passing that he wanted to go into the priesthood … Would he have? I don’t know. He was only 14, he hadn’t experienced life yet.”
When Hinderhofer returned to Delaware County in June 2019 after serving 10 years in the Coast Guard in Juneau, Alaska, coordinating search and rescue missions, one of the first places he went to visit was Ryan’s grave.
The summer before he died, Ryan vacationed with the Shea family in Cape May, New Jersey. After disappearing for a time and having everyone in the house looking for him, Ryan returned saying he rode his bike to church.
“How many kids that age do that? But that was Ryan,” Maura Shea said.
“Would he have been a priest? I don’t know. Or would he be the most fabulous dad? Being a husband, being a dad, is a calling, too,” said Shea, echoing similar sentiments of others who knew Ryan.
A ‘social leader’
Friends that Ryan made at St. Francis, from kindergarten through eighth grade, he had for life.
“There wasn’t a mean bone in his body. He made sure everyone was included,” Jamie Kerezsi, 36, a Philadelphia resident and licensed Realtor, said of her classmate and friend of the family.
“He was so kind to everyone, living the true sense of his religion,” recalled Liz Day. Friends since kindergarten and school sweethearts since the fifth grade at St. Francis, she and Ferris shared a passion for sports, talked for hours on the phone, and went to the school dances together.
With a core group of friends, they would also spend time together at the Riddlewood Swim Club, play in the woods behind the school gym, and enjoy recess on the upper-level property behind the school – near where Ryan is now buried.
“He was so funny. He would crack up the entire room, even the nuns loved him. I do think he was one of a kind. I have no doubt he would be doing something amazing,” said Day, a married mother of one who is a reporter for the New York Times.
“He always made me smile,” former teacher Theresa Albany-Huke said. She recalled Ryan as the “social leader” of the tight-knit school, where there were less than 20 students in a class and the girls outnumbered the boys.
“You could correct Ryan, and I did many times, and he was your best friend five minutes later,” she said, noting that joking in class and forgetting homework were his usual minor infractions.
In a letter to Ryan’s parents before his 15th birthday, Albany-Huke wrote, “His enthusiasm about God and his faith strengthened mine … Ryan reminded me that God’s world was joyful and full of life … Instead of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, I will look at the world through Ryan’s eyes.”
As his English teacher, it was Albany-Huke who assigned one of Ryan’s last writing projects – the Ryan Montz! paper. Looking back, she remembers wanting the students “to think outside the box.”
A special message
It was at least a year after the fire when Roberta Ferris found the “Ryan Montz!” paper stored among Ryan’s possessions. At the time, she was engaged in fund raising for a scholarship in Ryan’s name to benefit St. Malachy School in Philadelphia.
“I find this thing and I’m reading it for the first time … immediately it connected to me that he was writing a story about himself, about what he intended or wanted to do with his life … I’m reading about a business … a burn center… all these different connections and I just started bawling,” recalled Roberta. “I was by myself, and I’m saying, ‘Ryan, Ryan. No, Ryan. I cannot do this. This is supposed to be you, your life. You should be running a fund raiser, not me.
“But I knew I was reading this for a reason,” Roberta continued. “It was a sign to me that I was on the right path. I knew I was going in the right direction and that I had to keep going. I had to keep going, for Ryan. It was major to me.”
Looking back and knowing how other children have benefited because of Ryan, pleases Roberta Ferris.
“Because of Ryan, I am very blessed … But I am not the only one. Ryan had an impact on a lot of people,” his mother said. Ryan’s legacy of who he was, and how he lived, is living on.”
The call for a fire at 38 New Road came in at 3:43 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 6. Authorities believe the fire originated in the front of the house.
Detective Thomas Giancristoforo III is leading the ongoing arson homicide investigation for the Aston Police Department.
“We believe it was intentionally set,” he said, noting that all natural and accidental causes have been ruled out.
With arson cases throughout the county deserving more attention, James E. Nolan IV, chief of the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division, said his office is exploring ways to best use fire investigation resources, specifically using the Ferris case as a reminder of the human cost of fires.
“We want to bring Ryan’s case to a conclusion, and we will dedicate as much time and effort as possible to make that happen. But if we are unable to do so, Ryan won’t have died in vain,” Nolan said.
“I firmly believe this is a solvable case and there are people out there who can provide information to help bring closure to this family,” said Giancristoforo, an alum of St. Francis who knows the Ferris family.
A box filled with hundreds of documents related to the Ferris case stays close to Giancristoforo’s desk.
“I never forget about the case. Whenever I get a minute, I pull something out of the box and review it,” he said.
It took a long time before Roberta Ferris stopped looking at random people as a potential arsonist. While she would like to know the who and why of the case, she is happy Ryan is not forgotten.
“I think it is wonderful. Even if they never find the person who set the fire, it means a lot to me and my family that they care like this,” Roberta Ferris said.
Elijah Dobry was 2 when his uncle Ryan died. For all the nine years that he attended St. Francis, the school celebrated Ryan Ferris Day on his uncle’s Jan. 20 birthday.
“I was cool because he was my uncle. All of my classmates loved him,” Dobry, 25, said.
“Ryan’s birthday has become a holy day for me,” Roberta Ferris posted on Facebook on Jan. 20, 2020.
Even now, when Dobry hears stories about Ryan, it is hard to imagine someone that young having such an impact, in life and after death.
“He’s not forgotten. He left such an impression that my five kids know who he is, after all these years,” said 38-year-old Laura Watkinson Eastburn who knew Ryan from the Riddlewood Swim Club.
“I explain to them how important life is, how important people you love are and how fast that can change,” Eastburn said.
It is also the reason Eastburn will forever have an emergency evacuation plan in her house, a positive outcome to Ryan’s death that Roberta Ferris was unaware of until recently.
“Add it to Ryan’s legacy,” Roberta said proudly. “He hasn’t stopped yet.”
Fifth in a special and occasional series in partnership with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office.