Many of us remember the classic ‘Olan Mills’ days of family portraits with either the plain background, the fake library or the wagon wheel. And, the gaze and hand placement had to be orchestrated with complete care. Fortunately photography has come a long way, making the ‘Olan Mills’ days a thing of the nostalgic past. Or it was until Ryan and Lauren Ahlwardt used it as inspiration for their family portrait last year, along with their cat, Rusty. “It was challenging to find a photographer that would do this – not sure they wanted their name associated with this work,” said Lauren.
As I examined a vintage baby photo of Ryan with a floating head of his sister in the corner of the photo – a classic Olan Mills trick – I sensed a funny story unfolding. The photos are brilliantly hilarious – so much so that someone sent it to the Ellen Show’s “Bad Holiday Photos”, and their shot made it on air – complete with a comment from Ellen, “The sad part is, this couple has three kids.” (For the record, the Ahlwardts do not have children yet, but are ready for them.)
Ryan Ahlwardt, who graduated from HSE High School, class of ‘99, and his wife, Lauren, began their marriage under unique circumstances. Less than three months after their wedding, Ryan received a call that would quickly change their lives. The ’band’ was getting back together after the chairman of Atlantic Records had viewed a viral video on YouTube of a Straight No Chaser performance. That call changed the course of their lives for the next five years. As Ryan tells the story, it took him all of seven seconds to say, “Yes!”
Lauren and Ryan met at Indiana University. As a freshman, Ryan began singing with Straight No Chaser (now named ‘Another Round’), and Lauren was part of ‘Ladies First’, which is the women’s a cappella group. The two met their sophomore year and were dating by junior year. Originally from Hudson, OH, Lauren chose to attend IU for theater and telecommunications, and Ryan earned a degree in marketing from the Kelley School of Business. Lauren works for the corporate office of McDonald’s in Indianapolis.
Ryan knew that Lauren would completely support his decision to tour and perform with Straight No Chaser (SNC). Performing is what they have done for the better part of their lives. Both Ryan and Lauren have been singing longer than they can remember. As exciting, and as much fun as Ryan was having with SNC, the life of a performer isn’t as glamorous as it may seem. Sleeping on buses in cramped conditions, late nights, spending extended periods of time away from home can wear on you. Ryan and Lauren found that to be true by year five. “We started considering options and looking around for something else,” said Ryan.
Mid-way into year five of SNC, Ryan overheard a conversation while getting his hair cut at Wild Horses salon. The discussion was about Young Life and the para-church organization’s search for a new area coordinator. A full-time position was opening up, and possibilities were blooming for Ryan. He instinctively knew this is what he wanted to pursue. During his breaks from touring, Ryan would frequently find himself in the choir room at HSE high school, as a fly on the wall. He enjoyed helping out and encouraging the students, not realizing this was prepping him for working with Young Life. “Few people ever find their true calling in life, and you have found two,” said Ryan’s father-in-law about the switch from professional singer to Fishers Area Director for Young Life.
Then, there was sharing his decision with the rest of the members of Straight No Chaser. Ryan, a front man for the group, was nervous. “SNC was such an amazing opportunity. I had been so blessed to be traveling with my best friends, enjoying the time spent, but yet knowing I was ready for something else,” explained Ryan. When Ryan joined SNC in college, he replaced Steve Morgan, a graduating senior at the time. Ryan called Steve to get his advice about how to break it to the guys. “Steve had been on Broadway. He is a very talented singer and holds an MBA. When the group was originally re-assembled, his timing wasn’t right and I was in – now timing was good for him. He was to replace me,” said Ryan.
Last October there was a charter ‘SNC Cruise’ and Ryan and Lauren decided to break the news to the group at the end of the trip. Ryan’s last performance with SNC was December 23rd, 2012, and he began his Young Life training on January 5th. “It was a fast turnaround,” said Ryan. He was ready for the next new adventure in his life.
Once you open yourself up to possibilities, things start rolling towards you – and Ryan and Lauren have been enjoying themselves and the time together. “It’s nice to have him home more – the travel was tough but we made it work,” she said. And, the couple is performing together on the weekends at Geist Christian Church north campus as part of the worship team.
Ryan and Mike Luginbill (’99 HSE grad) of SNC held a fundraiser at the Hearthstone Coffeehouse to raise money for the Young Life summer camp this past spring. Thanks to social media, word spread and the event was a success. Some serious SNC fans drove down from Michigan to enjoy the intimate venue. Ryan plans to consider more performances around the area, but is happy working with Young Life. “The kids are great, and we have a very supportive group of parents. Its exciting to be experiencing such amazing growth!” said Ryan.
Ryan is in a rare position to share his experience of making good decisions that impact his life in a positive way. Being a role model is a natural position for Ryan to undertake considering the life changes he’s experienced in the last couple of years.
As for music, it is a huge part of their lives, and will continue to be (and, perhaps some day there will be three kids in the family portrait along with Rusty’s floating head.)
For information about Young Life visit HSEYL.com