What It's Like to Be Friends With Nanci Ryder: "There's Nothing She Wouldn't Do For Anybody"

Nanci Ryder and Jay Schwartz - H - 2016
Courtesy of Jay Schwartz

Longtime friend Jay Schwartz opens up about the power publicist as she faces down ALS: "She's an amazing person — the one who always asks you, 'How can I help you? Can I make this phone call for you?' She would give you the shirt off her back. Nanci is the true meaning of 'friend.'"

I first met Nanci Ryder in 1985 when I moved out here from New York. A headhunter friend of hers contacted me to work for her at her company, Ryder Public Relations. We had an office at the corner of Melrose and Orlando avenues. Our big client at the time was Michael J. Fox, and we had quite a few other clients, (mostly from Family Ties) but it was just me and Nanci and her dog Harlette in the office.

I remember my first day, I brought a cardboard box with me to work and it had all my stuff in it. We shared an office and in those early days, and we just sat on the floor next to each other and made phone calls and tried to get work done. Something just clicked between us — we would laugh and just have a blast together. We weren't making a lot of money, but we had fun and made the most of it.

The running joke we had was, “If we could just sign one more client at $1,500, then all of our bills would be paid.” We ended up spending a lot of time together on the weekends, too, going to The Improv, which was one of her favorite places to go. She loved it there.

We worked together for a few more years and we eventually became Baker Winokur Ryder. I had a difficult time with that transition and I eventually left in 1992. That was hard on both of us. Regretfully, I would never have left looking back on it now because I missed out times together.

But the great thing about Nanci is that many years later, I was able to pick up with her exactly where we left off. My feelings and love for her has never changed. She's an amazing person — the one who always asks you, "How can I help you? Can I make this phone call for you?" She would give you the shirt off her back. Nanci is the true meaning of "friend." There's nothing that she wouldn't do for anybody. That's just who she is.

Here's a silly thing. When we started working together, I had a deviated septum I didn't even know what that meant. I just knew that I had trouble breathing. She took me to a doctor and they were going to fix it and I had to go in for surgery. She picked me up and as I sat down in her car in front of my house, we both started crying like we were saying goodbye to each other. How ridiculous is that? We laugh about it now. But she was there, and she waited for me and took me home.

What's not silly is that after I left the company, my sister, Adrienne, died of cancer. Nanci was there for me then, too. I'll never forget that. The deviated septum is a funny story, but the fact that she was there for me after a death in my family meant a lot. In this town, there are not a lot of people you can count on to always be there for you but she is one.

In recent months while she's been fighting ALS, it has been hard to see her so vulnerable, especially now that she is having trouble communicating. The disease is progressing faster than I thought it would, but she is so strong. I know she's OK when she looks at me and gives me a thumbs up.

I try to see her at least twice a week. I would do anything to help her. I reached out to so many of our friends and contacts that we made from those early days of working together, to help to raise money for the Walk to Defeat ALS. It's amazing, but not really surprising, how many people jumped at the chance to donate.

We were a force to be reckoned with all those years ago. Now, she's a force to be reckoned with as she fights this horrible disease. A few months ago, I did an interview on KABC with Nanci doing the Ice Bucket Challenge and got calls and emails saying things like, "Jay you are such a good friend for being there for Nanci after all these years."

I was really surprised by the comments, because in my mind, isn’t it obvious? Of course, I will be there for her in whatever she needs. Why wouldn't I be? I don't know how to do anything else.

There is no question.

Whatever Nanci needs, I will be there to help.

And I know all of her friends would say the same thing.

Jay Schwartz is a veteran publicist and founding partner of full-service public relations firm JDS.