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At Home on Floyds Fork with Dr. James Ramsey

| Bob Hill
At Home on Floyds Fork with Dr. James Ramsey

Higher education, Presbyterian faith and the tight-knit, rural community of Fern Creek were deeply imbedded in his family long before Dr. James Ramsey became president of the University of Louisville.

So was the nearby, meandering presence of Floyds Fork and its often waterlogged Irongate Golf Course – a failed course  that’s been given a new life and will soon become the newest member of the nearly completed Parklands of Floyds Fork family.

What matters most in this Ramsey family history is how that legacy is now playing a part in Louisville’s future. It’s well-aged, rock solid – and relentlessly circular. Like so many Louisville family stories, it keeps running into itself in different ways, times and places.

The proof of its staying power can be seen in his presidency of the University of Louisville – as well as the two community buildings named in his family’s honor; one at a Presbyterian church, another a middle school.

“My roots,” said Ramsey, “are very much Fern Creek.”

What follows is the proof of all that:

William Ramsey – James Ramsey’s grandfather – came from North Carolina in 1909 to attend the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary on Broadway, now the home of Jefferson Community and Technical College.

After graduation in 1912, William Ramsey became minister at Beulah Presbyterian Church on Bardstown Road in Fern Creek. He and his wife, Perrye, lived in the seminary building on campus.

The church itself dates back to 1795 and the Pennsylvania Run Presbyterian Church. After the Civil War, many Presbyterian churches were bitterly divided over northern and southern allegiances, with the Beulah Presbyterian Church emerging from that in 1868.

Its first home was the Old Stone House on Bardstown Road owned by a Miss Margaret Guthrie. The first church building – a traditional meeting house with one large room – was erected in 1870.

It was there that William Ramsey became minister from 1912 until 1920 – and again from 1926 to 1941. The church expanded over the years, adding a basement, class rooms, stained glass windows, offices and a library. The old manse was torn down in 1958; a new one built a short distance away.

John L. Ramsey – the father of James Ramsey – was born in the manse on church property in 1917. He became a legendary athlete at Fern Creek High school, and was recruited to Western Kentucky University by the famed basketball coach E. A. Diddle where he met his wife, Louise Rowe.

Her father, Curtis Rowe, ran the L&N RR station house in Scottsville. The family lived right on the property; the scent and sounds of trains everywhere; you could walk out the front door and there was the depot.

There would be a slice of geographic coincidence in the meeting of John Ramsey and Louise Rowe. Scottsville is on U.S. 31E – the same U.S. 31E that runs through Fern Creek as Bardstown Road, and right past the Beulah Presbyterian Church.

And Bardstown Road would continue to run through the heart of the family.

 “If you stop and think about it,” said Ramsey, “it is kind of interesting.”

His parents married in 1941. They would be married 60 years and raise two children, James and Suzanne. Both parents began teaching at Fern Creek High School. His mother, uncomfortable with the fact she was teaching in a school her two children were attending, moved on to Seneca High School to teach math.

She then attended the University of Louisville – the school which her son would someday lead – for her master’s degree. She would become a guidance counselor at Seneca, retiring in 1976. She died in 2001 and was buried in Resthaven Memorial Park on Bardstown Road.

Her husband, John Ramsey, would work at a Rubbertown factory for a time, and taught and coached at Fern Creek High School for nine years.

He also received his masters from the University of Louisville. He moved on to the Jefferson County Public Schools system, eventually becoming associate superintendent for general administration, retiring in 1975. He died in 2010 at age 93 and was buried near Louise in Resthaven Memorial Park on Bardstown Road.

Dr. James Ramsey was born in 1948 at the old Baptist Hospital on Barrett Avenue. He grew up in a house on Fern Creek Road, attended Fern Creek Elementary and nearby Fern Creek High School – living only 10 houses away.

 “The elementary school building is no longer there,” he said, “but the current schools are all still on the same campus and location. I’ve been out many times and visited the last three principals, actually, and try to keep some of my roots there.”

Fern Creek was isolated then, with miles of Bardstown Road farmland separating it from Buechel to the north – where General Electric built its massive Appliance Park in 1954 – and Floyds Fork and Mount Washington to the south.

Fern Creek remained rural, tight knit, a mostly blue-collar community of churches and interrelated families. The Gene Snyder Expressway that would fully open the community to suburbia and urban sprawl was still years away. It had a volunteer fire department and a community center with a small library.

There were the classic small-town doctors like Dr. Everett Neil Rush, a general practitioner who birthed and served thousands of residents, and Dr. Clyde Moore, another town doctor for 46 years.  

Louisville was a distant place, a journey. Ramsey’s childhood memories were made visiting Fanelli’s Ice Cream store in Buechel, or taking a bus to Broadway and Fourth Street downtown with all those movie theatres – the Mary Anderson, Rialto, and United Artists. Back then everyone shopped at Stewart’s and Kaufman’s.

“When I was a sophomore or junior in high school it was a huge deal when they built the Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road, and you didn’t have to do downtown,” he said.

When Ramsey was 13 his family moved a few miles north from Fern Creek Road to an isolated home on Bardstown Road next to Wildwood Country Club. The area had begun to change; Bardstown Road had expanded to four lanes and commuter traffic was heavy.

“There were no neighborhoods there, no parks, nothing for kids,” he said of his new home. “You couldn’t go out and ride your bike and there weren’t any neighbors.

“So from the time I was 13 until I was 16 and could get a driver’s license, I’d get up, walk over to Wildwood Country Club and caddy.

“Gene Sullivan, a famous name around here, was the pro. There weren’t any golf carts in those days, and so I’d hang out over there.”

Hanging out was necessary. The work wasn’t steady. The golfers were given cards to evaluate the caddies; Class A, Class B, etc. Only the Class A caddies earned $3 a bag.

Did some-day college president Ramsey receive an A rating?

“Yeah.”

And after work did he ever go wading for lost golf balls in the actual Fern Creek – the little stream that ran through the course that had given the community its name.

 “Absolutely.”

The caddies would also come in at 1 a.m. some mornings to clean up after parties. The fringe benefit would be on Mondays – when the course was closed – the caddies could play the course free, or go swimming in the pool.

At age 16, driver’s license in hand, Ramsey got a job as a delivery boy for the Oak Drug Store in the Eastland Shopping center at Watterson Trail and Bardstown Road. His vehicle was a little Plymouth Valiant.

“So I would drive all over,” he said, “not just Fern Creek but Buechel and sometimes into Jeffersontown and Okolona.

“They trusted me,” he said, “and Muhammad Ali had moved out off Nachand Lane and Watterson Trail. So his dad would call in sometimes for refreshments. You know, drugstores had more than drugs.

“And so they would probably break the law but they let me be the one to take beer out to the house. And sometimes you would see Muhammad Ali.

“He was not living at home, but every now and then you’d go over there and he was home.”

Ramsey also delivered medicine to a Bardstown Road nursing home owned by two local businessmen – Wendell Cherry and David Jones – the home that was the beginning of the far-reaching Humana empire. David Jones would eventually become a huge financial supporter and advisor for U of L – and a Ramsey supporter.

After graduating from Fern Creek High school in 1966 – where he played basketball against the likes of future U of L legend Wes Unseld – he attended Western Kentucky University.

He met his wife, Jane Langley Ramsey, in a story worthy of the coming-of-age movie “American Graffiti.” Jane grew up in South Louisville, the daughter of an L&N Railroad employee who worked in the maintenance yard that’s now the site of Papa John Cardinal Stadium. Her grandfather was an L&N engineer. She was in the first class to graduate from Iroquois High School in 1968.

She would, for a time, attend what was called Jefferson Community College on Broadway in a building that once housed the former Presbyterian Seminary – the same building James Ramsey’s grandfather had used.

“I met her right before I went back to Western,” said Ramsey, who worked summers at the Brown & Williamson factory at 15th and Hill streets to earn money.

“The Fern Creek kids hung out at the Jerry’s on Bardstown Road and she hung out at a Jerry’s on New Cut Road.

“She had been somewhere with a friend and I had been somewhere with a friend, and we just drove over to a Jerry’s on Preston Highway, and she and her friend drove over…and we just met.”

Jane Ramsey later transferred to Western Kentucky University. The couple married in 1972 – 43 years ago.

His path to the presidency of the University of Louisville ­is a bibliography that runs through a BS from WKU, a PhD in economics from the University of Kentucky, economics professorships at Middle Tennessee State University, Loyola University and the University of Kentucky and, in 1992, becoming vice-president for Finance at WKU.

“I thought I was going to retire in Bowling Green,” he said.

 Not exactly.

His stops also included six months duty in the U. S. Army active reserves, serving Kentucky governors John Y. Brown, Wallace G. Wilkinson and Paul Patton in overlapping policy areas of investment, debt management, budget and economic analysis and becoming Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

He returned to Kentucky in 1999 to be both an economics professor at U of L and the Kentucky State Budget Director.

“I come in at 8 a.m. to teach a class at U of L and then take off for Frankfort,” he said, “and then they offered me the presidency in Louisville.”

With his wife as partner – she grew up three miles south of U of L – they worked to revitalize the housing, park and business area around the campus, a job made easier with the tremendous boom in athletic facilities at the edges of the school.

Their two daughters, Jenny and Jacque, would include U of L in their academic experiences; Jenny with a nursing degree and Jacque with an MBA.

His administration has been lauded for the school’s tremendous growth in campus facilities, landscaping, enrollment, academic achievement, research and fundraising. He has also been heavily involved in many community and civic projects in the Louisville area.

The work comes with some criticism, most recently for a current lack of racial diversity on its 20-member Board of Trustees – 17 of who are appointed by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.

There have also been complaints about his salary – set by the board – that is about three times higher than other comparable schools, a salary strongly defended by the trustees and community leaders who cite his many ongoing accomplishments.

He always believed he would finish out his career teaching; the U of L board had other ideas, extending his president’s contract to 2020.

“We’ve still got some things I think that we need to get done,” he said.

His family, Fern Creek and even Floyds Fork connections and memories are part of that need to keep improving U of L and its larger community; finish the job.

Some of that grew from stopping at an old family restaurant on Floyds Fork when headed south to visit his grandmother in Scottsville.

Some came from a Fern Creek rite of adolescence; teenagers would drive their cars into Floyds Fork just south of Fern Creek on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to play around and wash them.

“I wouldn’t really call it swimming,” he said. “We’d just fool around in the water, drink beer, whatever.”

Then there was the old Irongate Golf Course at Seatonville he played as a member of the Fern Creek High School golf team – an area now transformed into meadow, new plantings and a park road.

“I mean if you hit your ball off line you’re in Floyds Fork,” he said.

There is also the old cemetery off Seatonville Road where he was walking with Parklands Chairman and CEO Dan Jones a few years ago and saw the name “Ellingsworth” on a tombstone.

“There was an Ellingsworth family I knew in Fern Creek,” said Ramsey, “and I told Dan, ‘Geez, I wish my dad were still alive. He could tell me the name of everybody who’s buried here.”

There are other, more solid Ramsey family memorials in the area, too. There’s the Ramsey Activity Building at Beulah Presbyterian Church named for his grandfather, and the John L Ramsey Middle School just off Billtown Road a few miles from Seatonville named for his father.

Shortly before his father died more than 115 students from Ramsey Middle School went to sing for him at the Episcopal Church Home where he was living.

On occasion, Ramsey said, when feeling melancholy, he will drive Bardstown Road past the Buechel Presbyterian Church, or visit Resthaven to where his parents and sister – who also taught school for a time – are buried. He’ll also drive past Ramsey Middle School to stay in touch with all that matters.

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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