The John Fraser Ramsey Award

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History of the Award

From David B. McElroy

In May 1978, Warren Herlong wrote from Edinburgh, "You... have not only done it, but youíve done it splendidly. Congratulations! I think that weíve created a memento for John that, most importantly, he. but also we, can all be proud of." Warren was writing shortly after Ann Blalock (Lee) had become the first recipient of the John Fraser Ramsey Award at the University of Alabama.

Today, the Ramsey Award is the most prestigious annual award at the University and carries with it a twenty-five-year tradition of welcoming each new recipient into the Ramsey Award family.

Starting the Award was not easy. Annís award in 1978 was the culmination of more than a year of work and preparation to create the first University-wide endowed fund. When John Ramsey decided to retire from the University in the spring of 1977, two groups wanted to honor him in some special way. Johnís former doctoral students, with Dr. David Vess, professor and chair of the History and Political Science Department at Samford University as the leader, made up one group. This is the group with which I became involved. Johnís wider circle of friends, led by Warren Herlong, made up the other group. Neither group was aware that the other was planning anything special.

The doctoral students and history colleagues expected to follow the academic tradition of honoring a respected professor by organizing the publication of a Festschrift, a collection of scholarly papers by former students. David Vess and I contacted several of Johnís doctoral students and received mixed responses. In March 1977, David wrote that the idea of a festschrift "promises a long delay" and "we might raise funds easier than we can raise quality papers for a memorial volume." Several respondents offered possible alternatives. One former student suggested endowing a cash gift to accompany the Ramsey Award established several years earlier by the Alabama Association of Historians. Dr. John Brittain, a professor at The Citadel, suggested that we underwrite the Miriam Rebecca Fraser Award which John donated annually to a first year graduate student in European history in memory of his mother. Johnís first doctoral student, Brooks Thompson, a professor at Troy State College, and his wife Harriet felt that a scholarship in Johnís name "would have many advantages over anything else."

Meanwhile, the retirement celebration plans gathered speed. The History Department honored John with a gala affair at the Moongate Inn, Tuscaloosa's first Chinese restaurant. Warrenís group held a huge retirement party at the Tuscaloosa Country Club. The day after the Country Club party, my wife, Janet, and I had a brunch for friends who were in town for the event. Again the idea emerged of doing something for John that would be lasting - neither a Festschrift that few would read, nor a gift which he would probably give away. As the guests were getting ready to leave, Brooks Thompson announced that we should go ahead and establish a scholarship in Johnís name. We all agreed that we needed to act on the suggestion without further delay. Brooks and the other guests stayed for a while and we planned our course of action.

Early the next week, I contacted Warren, who immediately seized the idea. I took the liberty of making our first contact with the University of Alabama administration, but did not receive much encouragement. The UA officials said that we would need a minimum of $10,000 to endow a fund. They cautioned that no one had ever attempted to endow a fund for a University-wide award and reminded us that the University had its own Capital Campaign Fund. I did receive assurances, however, that the resources of the Development Office under Dale Almond, would be at our service if we decided to proceed. Emphasizing the importance of preliminary planning to avoid failure, Dale wrote, ďDeveloping the solicitation list is crucial, as is the method of approach.Ē He warned against requesting just any amount because that would bring in small gifts and make the campaign more difficult and longer. Setting a minimum amount at a larger figure would be easier and faster, but would also eliminate some potential donations. Dale told me that soliciting funds from Johnís academic friends would be important. We could have not done the job in 1977-78 without the splendid assistance and cooperation of Dale Almond and Becky Fowler in the Development Office.

In early March 1977, 1 talked with Warren by telephone and asked that he get some reaction "from some of Johnís non-academic and well-heeled friends." Again the response was enthusiastic. With Warren as our leader, Brooks Thompson, Harry Lee, Billy Scroggins, Bill Blount, Morris Mayer, and I mapped out the initial plans for the fund raising campaign. Each member agreed to try to raise $1,000 before we even went public. Each agreed also to target a specific group. Brooks and David Vess contacted former doctoral students; Morris worked the rest of the University community; Harry Lee tackled the A Club; Bill Scroggins took on Phi Eta Sigma; Warren rounded up the Jasons and the SGA; and I contacted the History Department. Each of us was to request a contribution of at least $100 from ten people. We requested that all pledges and cash contributions be in hand by the end of June. With this plan, Warren approached the University again. The Development Office agreed to set up the account, receive contributions and pledges, and hold the money until the group raised $10,000. David Vess urged Warren to head-up the fund drive, and in a letter dated April 20, 1977, Warren accepted. The next day, Warren informed John about our plans. John told Warren that such a scholarship would mean more to him than anything else we could do.

Warren served as legal counsel for the committee. He developed the documents setting forth the terms of the award, the qualifications of the recipients, and application procedures. He had the foresight to create a self-perpetuating Executive Board of Directors. Along with all of this, Warren also laid out a fund-raising schedule because, as he wrote, ". . . we must be assured of reaching our goal before the solicitation letters are actually sent." By early June we had collected about $8,000. But Warren was not satisfied. He felt the flow was slowing down and wondered "if a bit of prodding... might not be in order." He had set June 20,1977 as the deadline for all contributions and pledges. As he had planned, we announced the establishment of the John Fraser Ramsey Scholarship on June 25, 1977. We were touched when John immediately contributed $500, which he had received with the Alumni Associationís Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award. Later, when we understood his financial straits, we realized the true magnanimity of Johnís gift.

Shortly after the announcement. Warren left the country for "a most enjoyable year in Edinburgh." In the fall of 1977, while Warren read law and probably sipped Scotch in Scotland, the rest of us struggled to complete the $10,000, design the plaque and brochure, and plan for the first yearís award. In December 1977, Morris directed the design and production of the brochure that some of you have in hand; by January 1978 the plaque was ready for mounting in the Gorgas Library. Around that time, Morris sent the committee a memo stating, "To be very honest, this memo is somewhat in the nature of a communication to Warren who must be frantic that we are not doing everything that we should!"

Thus, with Warrenís trans-Atlantic prodding and the committeeís success with donors, we raised $15,000 to launch the Ramsey Award to honor John and were ready to select the first recipient in 1978.

For the first two years, 1978 and 1979, the Executive Board held its spring meeting at Johnís apartment at 20Ĺ Audubon Place. As I recall, John invited the first two recipients for the cocktail hour part of our meetings. John served the Board his famous one-dish supper: sausage baked with ready-packaged scalloped potatoes. The Board members toasted John, the University, and Denny Chimes and persuaded John to read selections from Mark Twain.

During the Executive Board meetings, Judy Mayer and my wife, Janet, dined at our house next door. After two years of such quarantine, the two spouses said, "No More." They decreed a change: henceforth, the main event would be cocktails and dinner at the University Club for the Award recipients and their families and the spouses and guests of the Board members. The Executive Board could have its meetings for one hour only. This civilizing and inclusive wave swept over the annual affair.

In 1980, we honored Marilyn Drees, the third Award recipient, with the first "Ramsey Family" dinner and started a tradition that we continue to enjoy.

Recipients of the Award

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