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John Warren Ramsey, a Political Science Professor at ODU for nearly 30 Years, Dies at 91

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 holding a doctoral degree.

And if you referred to him as "Dr."?

"He would correct you on it," said Don Zeigler, professor emeritus of geography and chair of Old Dominion University's Department of Political Science and Geography.

"That's part of him having that common-man orientation," added Charles Jones, a former political science professor at ODU who also served as director of the Institute for the Study of Minority Issues. "He never put on any airs."

Ramsey, a political science professor at ODU for nearly 30 years, died on Jan. 11. He was 91.

Ramsey earned his bachelor's from Monticello Agricultural and Mechanical College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), a master's from the University of Arkansas in 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 grew up in Arkansas, experiences that shaped the rest of his life.

An online obituary noted that his "efforts to fight against poverty and racism, which he had 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 at the Norfolk International Airport when Jones came to ODU for his job interview. There were relatively few African American faculty members at the time. They team-taught an Introduction to American Government class, and Ramsey served as a mentor.

"He would always give me little tips," Jones said. "How to be a more effective teacher. How to navigate the university system. He always was there with great support and encouragement. He was very important in terms of helping me to become the instructor that I became and going on to have the success that I did."

Their personal bond was just as strong.

"From the outside, you wouldn't think we'd have anything in common," said Jones, 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 is not."

Academically, Ramsey was much more focused on teaching than research and writing. Zeigler said that Ramsey spent a lot of one-on-one time with students. "He took a great deal of pride in that," said Zeigler, who retired from ODU in 2016.

"He was an old-timer when it came it classroom teaching," 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. That didn't make a difference to him at all. He was doing what he knew was right 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 post. "He was NEVER boring, and he imparted a lifelong love of political science within me."

Cynthia Walker Cork '76 called Ramsey "one of the best teachers I ever had," adding that "his organized, no-nonsense but fair approach to teaching was so excellent that it is difficult to describe."

Lewis Winston wrote that Ramsey's class "was so good that I still have the notebook from the course."

Ramsey's scholarly focus was on government bureaucracy, particularly at the federal and state levels.

"He was a specialist in the bureaucracy and how the bureaucracy really makes government work," Zeigler said. "The politicians, the elected officials, they come, they go. But behind the scenes, through it all, are the bureaucrats. They're the ones that matter."

Zeigler said Ramsey, who served for many years on the board of the ODU Credit Union, was always available to offer advice and assistance during his term as chair. "Maybe sometimes a bit too much," Zeigler said with a laugh. "He would let you know if things weren't working out quite the way he anticipated."

Jones, who's 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 noted his dedication to helping those less fortunate. He spent many years assisting in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, delivering meals to homebound seniors, and supporting many charitable organizations and the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk.

"He had a great heart for the little man, for the common man," Jones said. "He was very eager to reach out to help someone."

Now about that haircut. It was a military-style flattop he'd had since he was 20. It made him look more conservative than he was, Zeigler said, and "gave him an authority 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 preceded in death 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 companion, Katherine Mays. He is survived by his daughter, Laurie Anne Ramsey of Sewanee, Tennessee, and her 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; many great- and 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 schedued for 11 a.m. Aoril 9 at First Presbyterian Church, 820 Colonial Ave, Norfolk. Masks will be required, and everyone will be able to spread out in the sanctuary. The service is also scheduled to be livestreamed via Zoom. An outdoor reception following the service is being planned.

Arrangements aare being handled by Moore-Cortner Funeral Home in Winchester, Tennessee. In lieu of flowers, the family invites you to support Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, Christian Appalachian Project, Feeding America, Southern Poverty Law Center or a charity of your choice.

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