In May 1978, Warren Herlong wrote from Edinburgh, “You… have not only done it, but you’ve done it splendidly. Congratulations! I think that we’ve 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 one of the the most prestigious annual awards given at the University and carries with it a decades-long tradition of welcoming each new recipient into the Ramsey Award family.
Starting the award was not easy. Ann’s 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. John’s 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. John’s 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 David B. McElroy contacted several of John’s 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 the group underwrite the Miriam Rebecca Fraser Award which John donated annually to a first year graduate student in European history in memory of his mother. John’s first doctoral student, Brooks Thompson, a professor at Troy State College, and his wife Harriet felt that a scholarship in John’s name “would have many advantages over anything else.”
Meanwhile, the retirement celebration plans gathered speed. 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. Brooks Thompson said that those interested should go ahead and establish a scholarship in John’s name. All agreed on the need to act on the suggestion without further delay.
Early the next week, David McElroy contacted Warren, who immediately seized the idea. UA officials said a minimum of $10,000 was needed 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. The Ramsey Award family could have not done the job in 1977-78 without the assistance and cooperation of Dale Almond and Becky Fowler in UA’s Development Office.
With Warren as the leader, Brooks Thompson, Harry Lee, Billy Scroggins, Bill Blount, Morris Mayer, and David McElroy 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 David McElroy contacted the History Department.
Warren had set June 20,1977 as the deadline for all contributions and pledges. As planned, the establishment of the John Fraser Ramsey Scholarship was announced on on June 25, 1977. All involved were touched when John Ramsey immediately contributed $500, which he had received from winning the Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award. Later, when his financial straits were understood, the true magnanimity of John’s gift was realized.
All in all, supporters 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 John’s apartment. John invited the first two recipients for the cocktail hour part of the 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, two of the Executive Board member’s wives dined at a 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, the Ramsey Award honored Marilyn Drees, the third award recipient, with the first Ramsey Award dinner and started a tradition that is continued to this day.