February 03, 2022
By Joe Garvey
John Warren Ramsey was known for his commitment to teaching, his willingness to speak his mind, his haircut (more on that later), and his insistence on being called “Mr. Ramsey” despite his doctorate.
What if you call him “Dr.” ?
“He would correct you on that,” said Don Zeigler, professor emeritus of geography and chair of the department of political science and geography at Old Dominion University.
“It’s part of his common-man orientation,” added Charles Jones, a former professor of political science at ODU who also served as director of the Institute for the Study of Minority Issues. “He never did an air.”
Ramsey, professor of political science at ODU for nearly 30 years, died on January 11. He was 91 years old.
Ramsey earned his bachelor’s degree from Monticello Agricultural and Mechanical College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Missouri. He came to ODU in 1964 and retired from the University in 1992.
He was born during the Great Depression and raised in Arkansas, experiences that shaped the rest of his life.
An online obituary noted that his “efforts to address poverty and racism, which he first witnessed in the segregated South, were personal in nature”.
Jones could attest to that.
Jones, who is black, met Ramsey in 1983 when he picked him up from Norfolk International Airport when Jones came to ODU for his job interview. There were relatively few African American professors at the time. They taught an introductory US government course as a team, and Ramsey served as a mentor.
“He was always giving me little advice,” Jones said. “How to be a more effective teacher. How to navigate the university system. He was always there with so much support and encouragement. He was very important in helping me to become the instructor that I have become and to have the success I have made.”
Their personal bond was just as strong.
“From the outside, you wouldn’t think we have anything in common,” Jones said, noting their differences in race, age and background. “We were very good friends.
“Our relationship is an indication of what America could be but often isn’t.”
Academically, Ramsey was much more focused on teaching than on research and writing. Zeigler said Ramsey spent a lot of one-on-one time with the students. “He was very proud of it,” said Zeigler, who retired from ODU in 2016.
“He was an elder when it came to teaching in the classroom,” he added. “He told you what to do, and you did it on his terms. And a lot of students appreciated that, but there were a few who didn’t. It made no difference to him. . He was doing what he knew was good for them.”
Joe Mishkofski ’84 said Ramsey’s “enthusiasm for his subject matter was contagious”.
“He was tough, but fair,” Mishkofski wrote in a memorial message. “He was NEVER boring, and he instilled in me a lifelong love of political science.”
Cynthia Walker Cork called Ramsey “one of the best teachers I have ever had”, adding that “his organized, pragmatic but fair approach to teaching was so excellent it is hard to describe”.
Lewis Winston wrote that Ramsey’s course “was so good that I still have the course notebook”.
Ramsey’s scientific focus was on government bureaucracy, particularly at the federal and state levels.
“He was an expert on bureaucracy and how bureaucracy really makes government work,” Zeigler said. “Politicians, elected officials, they come, they go. But behind the scenes, through it all, are the bureaucrats. They are the ones who matter.”
Zeigler said Ramsey, who served for many years on the ODU Credit Union board, was always available to offer advice and assistance during his tenure as chairman. “Maybe sometimes a little too much,” laughed Zeigler. “He would let you know if things didn’t go quite the way he planned.”
Jones, who is now a professor at the University of Cincinnati, said Ramsey could be “like a pebble in your shoe. I’m sure he gave the administration fits at times.”
His online obituary also highlighted his dedication to helping those less fortunate. He spent many years helping out at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, delivering meals to housebound elderly people and supporting numerous charities and the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk.
“He had a big heart for the little man, for the regular man,” Jones said. “He was very keen to reach out to help someone.”
Now about this haircut. It was a military-style flattop he’d had since he was 20. It made him seem more conservative than he was, Zeigler said, and “gave him an authority that most people can’t command.”
Or, as Mishkofski put it: “Let’s face it folks. NOBODY rocked the crew-cut like John Ramsey!”
Ramsey was predeceased by his parents, Eva Marie and Warren Arthur Ramsey; his wife, Donna Ramsey; his son, Mark McSaen Ramsey; his sister, Carmen Leonard; his niece, Donna Bratz; and his longtime partner, Katherine Mays. He is survived by his daughter, Laurie Anne Ramsey of Sewanee, Tennessee, and his companion, Claude Gerling of Strasbourg, France; John’s nieces and nephews in Arkansas: Carol Ellen Thompson, Butch Selig (Judy), Eleanor Lynn O’Neal, James Arthur Leonard, Julie Fitzwater, Phyllis Jolley (Tim), and Sarah Leonard; several great-great-great-great-nieces and nephews; and in Virginia, Katherine’s children: Linda Mays, Rob Mays (Sybil) and Kathy Coleman (Sam).
His ashes will be scattered in Virginia and Arkansas, following a memorial service in Norfolk at a later date. Arrangements and tributes will be maintained at https://www.moorecortner.com/ by Moore-Cortner Funeral Home in Winchester, Tennessee. In lieu of flowers, the family invites you to support the King’s Daughters Children’s Hospital, Appalachian Christian Project, Feeding America, Southern Poverty Law Center, or a charity of your choice.
He worked for almost 30 years at the University and served two terms as chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography. (Following)
His impact was felt throughout the University and beyond, and he believed that his role as an artist and educator was more like a calling than a job. (Following)
Throughout February, the University will explore a wide range of topics through screenings, talks, culinary celebrations and more. (Following)