Daniel Eugene Ryals, Jr. was born in 1925 in Ybor City. His father died shortly thereafter and his mother moved back to Sumter County to be with her family. Gene grew up working on the family truck farm and small dairy and helped build the first vegetable auction shed in the Farmer’s Market that eventually became the Webster Flea Market. At Webster High School he enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Program of the Army Air Corps in 1943 and was active in FFA and other student organizations, while serving as class president. Gene graduated in 1944 and entered the service, where he flew in B-25 bombers during the war.
After he left active duty Gene resumed his education at the University of Florida, majoring in agricultural education. He received his degree in 1948 and accepted an offer to teach agriculture at Altha School in Calhoun County. While working on his master’s degree at UF, which he earned in 1950, Gene built a top notch FFA program, teaching and mentoring many outstanding young people. Among them were two young men who went on to have pretty good careers of their own - Bill Gunter and Don Fuqua. Bill and Don accompanied Gene as Florida selections to the American Youth Foundation Camp on Lake Michigan in the early 1950s. His chapter also produced two state presidents, three state Star Dairy Farmers, and numerous contest winners. Gene taught his students how to run a successful business as well. His chapter entered into a contract with a feed company to produce 12 to 15 thousand broiler chickens, and he helped local farmers in two counties by organizing a cooperative for processing and shipping cucumbers.
After 23 years at Altha, Gene took on a new challenge teaching horticulture for handicapped students in the Leon County School system. He then accepted a position in 1976 as the director of the new agribusiness center built to offer agribusiness courses to secondary and postsecondary students. Gene retired in 1981, but he left his mark on Florida agricultural education in many ways other than the jobs he held. He served on the State FFA Advisory Board for three years, helping each year’s newly elected officers develop and improve their leadership skills. He also served on the state textbook committee, which allowed him to select books appropriate for high school agriculture programs. His service on the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools committee to evaluate the effectiveness of programs gave Gene ideas for his own programs. And he was elected to serve for two years as an officer in the Florida Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association, which gave him the opportunity to serve agriculture teachers on a statewide level.
Gene did all these things and never sought any reward except the satisfaction of seeing his students grow up and succeed. And indeed, his former students and FFA members have gone on to successful careers in agriculture, government, and other businesses and organizations and are a credit to his high level work ethic, integrity, and public service.
Gene Ryals was inducted into the Florida FFA Hall of Fame October 5, 2010.