When we recall history, we often think of famous leaders, pioneers and heroes. But history is mostly shaped by ordinary men and women just trying to do their best under the circumstances.
I was reminded of that recently when a friend introduced me to Dr. James T. Ramsey of Frankfort. Ramsey, 91, was a child of the Great Depression who grew up in a small town in northeast Ohio.
"We had a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill and that was about it," he said.
"We were Methodists, and my mother was bent on me being a Methodist minister," he said. "She somehow located Asbury College in Wilmore. Spent all of her inheritance on the first year's tuition. After that, I was on my own."
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But Ramsey preferred chemistry and physics to theology. He wanted to become a doctor. "I guess it was my admiration for the old country doctor who delivered me in the home," he said.
Ramsey's senior year ended early when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like virtually all of his classmates, he joined the military.
"But I didn't want to die in the trenches," he said. "I always felt it was a cowardly decision that I wanted to fly."
He was hardly a coward. Ramsey joined the Army Air Corps and proved to be a talented pilot. By May 1944, he was in Italy, piloting a B-24 Liberator. He and his crew flew 50 bombing missions all over occupied Europe. Then he returned stateside to train other bomber pilots.
What did Ramsey learn from World War II?
"Do the best you can with what assignment you get," he said.
After he had completed cadet training, but before he went to war, Ramsey made a quick trip back to Central Kentucky. Kathleen Horn of Lexington was assigned to meet him at the train station. After that meeting, they began a correspondence.
"She was instructed by her friends that she ought to write to service people," he said. "I happened to be the service person she wrote to. I came back through Lexington and we spent some time together on furloughs."
After the war, they married and he enrolled in medical school at the University of Louisville. As with most of his classmates, the government paid for his education. Otherwise, he said, he could never have afforded to become a doctor.
"I think the GI Bill was great," Ramsey said. "I'm sure the cost has been repaid in taxes many times over."
After a residency in Cincinnati, Ramsey began a medical practice in Owen County, where there was then no hospital, X-ray machine or laboratory. He did his own lab work, with help from a local veterinarian.
Two years later, Ramsey completed a mini-residency in anesthesiology and moved to Frankfort. Over the next three decades, he practiced anesthesiology, general medicine and obstetrics, delivering more than 1,000 babies.
"A baby's birth is a miracle, and I felt that way with every one," Ramsey said, adding that many of them have kept in contact with him over the years.
Ramsey served on the school board, helped start Frankfort's first nursing home and admitted the first black patient to King's Daughters Hospital in 1959 after a federal loan for an expansion required that the hospital be desegregated.
"Prior to that, the only hospitalization we had available to black people was a dwelling house, and not a very good one," he said, referring to a frame house that in 1915 had become Winnie A. Scott Memorial Hospital.
"It was two-story and we had rigged an operating and delivery room on the second floor, so we had to carry people up the stairs," he said. "I thought that was disgraceful for the whole community."
Ramsey and his wife had seven children — five boys and two girls — all of whom went on to successful careers. He retired from medical practice in 1993, but he continued doing consulting work until a year ago. His wife died in May 2010.
When we sat down in his living room to talk recently, Ramsey said he didn't see anything remarkable about his life. Yet he fought in a war, raised a family and took care of a community. Like many of his generation, Jim Ramsey helped make America what it is today.