Amid the clicking of high heels and the whirs of suitcase wheels rolling across the tile floors of the O’Hare airport departure terminal, Gamma Phi Beta House Director Judy Ryno struggled to fit in an extra few moments of rest. Sleepless nights at O’Hare and Midway airports are just one of the many quirks that come with her role as a celebrity concierge. She’s walked one client’s German Shepards up and down the halls of the airport during a layover and has given another facials in the bathroom before takeoff.
“I don’t have a typical day,” she said. “It’s a lot of juggling – wearing different hats.”
Ryno balances her role as the Gamma Phi house director with her job as a celebrity concierge, which combine to create an unpredictable yet exciting life. As a concierge, Ryno is responsible for making celebrity clients’ travel experiences as smooth as possible from the time they arrive at the curb until their airplane takes off. She’s worked with countless high-profile stars, including Jennifer Hudson, Brie Larson and NU alumnus David Schwimmer. A few weeks ago, Ryno escorted the assistant director of the hit movie “Inside Out.”
To make her clients’ travel experiences as seamless as possible, Ryno plans out each minor detail, from communicating with the car service about drop-off and pickup times to printing out luggage tags and boarding passes.
“When you’re dealing with these people, you have to expedite them,” Ryno said. “You can’t just have them wait in this line and that line and find their way through the airport. You have to have everything set.”
Since she accepted the job on a whim a quarter of a century ago, Ryno has learned the ins and outs of the business. But when given her first assignment, she admitted, “I had no idea what I was supposed to do.”
More than anything, Ryno dreaded asking others in the airport for help. Over the years, though, Ryno’s established a network of various airport employees that go out of their way to make her job a bit easier. From ticket counter agents to TSA, she has friends in high places. She even works with the airport police to help fend off determined fans.
“They would actually follow a celebrity to their limousine and get inside to get autographs,” Ryno said. “So you have to be very on-hand and have the proper people to control the autograph seekers from getting too close.”
Navigating logistics, lines and swarms of travelers is no easy feat, but the relationships that Ryno has developed with her clients has made every snow delay and desperate phone call about lost luggage worthwhile.
“There are some stars that you say, ‘I hope I never get them again,’” she said, cracking a smile. “And there are others that you get to know as more than just a greeter.”
While Meryl Streep’s eldest daughter, Mamie Gummer, was an undergraduate at NU, Ryno frequently worked for her. She recalled one trip when Gummer accidentally left her bag in the airport on the way to a wedding. Ryno scoured the terminal in search of the missing luggage, to no avail, but her determination did not go unnoticed. Exhausted from a stressful day at work, Ryno returned home to find two-dozen yellow roses awaiting her, with a thank you note from Meryl Streep herself.
More than 50 years have passed since Ryno, class of ‘57, lived on NU’s campus as an undergraduate student. But for the past 25 years, the Gamma Phi Beta house director has resided over her own little niche in the sorority quad, experiencing college life from a particularly unique perspective.
Ryno interviewed for the position of house director in 1991, ready for a change. She was divorced and her grown children had moved out of the house. When NU offered her the job, Ryno packed up her belongings and moved into her new home on Emerson Street.
In a given day, Ryno might be laughing and watching TV with the sisters of Gamma Phi, shuttling back and forth from the airport, buying snacks for the kitchen or taking care of the house staff’s payroll. She oversees the residents, prepares for big events like Panhellenic recruitment and decorates the house for the holidays. But beyond her day-to-day tasks, Ryno most cherishes mealtime with the girls.
“We sit and we talk at the table,” Ryno said. “We discuss life’s problems and how we’re going to solve them.”
Having someone with such a wide range of life experiences, who has witnessed the evolution of college life before her eyes, adds an extra level of nuance to the atmosphere of the house.
Weinberg junior and Gamma Phi Chapter President Bryn Dougherty said that her conversations with Ryno are inherently different than those with other girls in the house.
“As students, we kind of get wrapped up in the bubble of being at Northwestern,” Dougherty said. “And then she [Ryno] tells you stories about her grandkids, or going to see her grandson play baseball, going to help take her daughter to a doctor’s appointment or something that, and it kind of makes you check yourself and go, ‘oh, I haven’t called my family in a while.’” Ryno reminds Dougherty to keep things in perspective.
A few days after moving into the Gamma Phi house this fall, Medill sophomore Emmy Kappes stopped by Ryno’s room to say hi, and they ended up chatting for nearly half an hour.
“I just remember feeling so welcome,” Kappes said. “When I moved into Gamma Phi, with Judy, I felt like I was home.”
Despite her age difference, Ryno fits right in with her college-aged housemates, who consider her both a motherly figure and a friend. Ryno especially loves sharing stories about her famed clients with the girls.
“As somebody who’s had one-on-one experiences with celebrities, she really loves when we have TV nights for the major awards shows,” Dougherty said. “As we’re watching that show, she can tell us stories about a bunch of the celebrities that are on TV that’s she’s had interactions with at the airport.”
Recently, when Ryno escorted Nicki Minaj through the airport, the rapper was fascinated by Ryno’s job as a house director. Ryno was proud to announce to the sorority sisters that Minaj had told her that she wanted to be a Gamma Phi.
Ryno admitted putting herself in the shoes of 18 to 22-year-old students isn’t always easy. But as a house director, she makes a conscious effort to see things from their point of view.
“I have to remember, even though I was here back in the ‘50s, how much different college life is today,” Ryno said. “And I recognize that now.”
While there no longer is a payphone by the door nor a “dinger bell” for gentlemen callers visiting the house, one aspect of the Gamma Phi house has remained the same for a quarter of a century: the woman living on the first floor.
Ryno said living in the sorority house keeps her young.
“I’m hip because I live it.”