Ryan himself has not spoken much in public about his father's death. In a New Yorker interview, he said, "I was like, 'What is the meaning?' I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection."
At high school, Ryan won the race for class president on a ticket together with his cousin, Adam Ryan, when both were juniors. When they graduated the following year, Adam was named in the yearbook as "Most Likely to Succeed," while Paul was "Biggest Brown-Noser."
Where that came from, Ryan's cousin isn't sure. But Adam, now president of Ryan Inc. Central, the Janesville construction company founded by his and Paul's grandfathers, could see back in high school that his cousin might be headed for the fast track.
In their senior year, Paul asked to come along when Adam went to a regional meeting of the Model United Nations. The future congressman had never before been active in the group, which offers students a chance to play the roles of U.N. delegates.
After watching the proceedings for a while, Paul vanished from his cousin's side and reappeared at the podium to address the entire group of perhaps 1,000 attendees, Adam said.
"He had basically figured out what was going on and had taken over the group. He was voted best delegate," Adam said. "When he gets interested in something, he's a very quick study."
Through the years, that fast-learner trait would be noticed again and again and would serve him well.
As newcomer in Congress, he immersed himself in complex number-crunching and budgetary minutia. He'd brag about reading the entire federal budget — "Not many people do that. It's fairly laborious," he said — and also told the Weekly Standard last year that meetings with budget actuaries were "the highlight of my day."
Those interests had surfaced in college, when Ryan pursued an economics/political science double major at Miami University in Ohio. He had no problems with a macroeconomics class loaded with analytics and math.
Ryan also read the works of free-market thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, and fine-tuned his views in lengthy chats with a libertarian economics professor, Rich Hart.
"The core beliefs were already there," Hart said. "I think he was just honing them with his studies, strengthening his belief in empowering individuals."
Rand, the Russian-born writer who championed individualism and assailed big government, had particular sway.
"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," Ryan said in a speech in 2005, though he later noted that he rejected some of Rand's views, including her atheism.
Ryan lived in a dormitory his freshman year at Miami, then moved to the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house. But no "Animal House" stories follow.
"He was a pretty conservative guy," said a former frat brother, Michael Loisel, while also noting that Ryan had a sense of humor. "He liked to engage in conversation."
And the conversation, as usual with Ryan, was relatively substantive — or as Loisel recalled, "more depth than the 'Where did you go last night?' and 'How much did you drink?'"
It was in college, while studying economic theories and principles, when Ryan got his first chance to test them in the real world of the nation's capital. He obtained an internship in the Washington office of Sen. Bob Kasten, a Wisconsin Republican.
Cesar Conda, now chief of staff for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, was at that point the staff director of a committee headed by Kasten and took note of the diligent newcomer.
"Delivering mail, he would always pop his head in and ask me questions about economics," Conda said — questions that were "a cut above" those expected from an intern.
Conda recommended some not-so-light reading — George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," and Jude Wanniski's "The Way the World Works." Both had influenced the supply-side economic theories of the Reagan era. He said Ryan devoured them.