Mark Story

Mark Story: For Ramsey, tornadoes hit close to home

Hall of Fame basketball player Frank V. Ramsey and his daughter, Cynthia Cooper, consoled one another amid the flattened rubble of his Madisonville home on Nov. 15, 2005. Ramsey, 79, owns a second house where he lives to this day.
Hall of Fame basketball player Frank V. Ramsey and his daughter, Cynthia Cooper, consoled one another amid the flattened rubble of his Madisonville home on Nov. 15, 2005. Ramsey, 79, owns a second house where he lives to this day. AP

Frank Ramsey watches television coverage of the devastation that the late-April tornadoes left in places like Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Ringgold, Ga., and shudders.

"It makes me thankful to be alive," the ex-University of Kentucky and Boston Celtics basketball great said Thursday. "Of all people, I know what they are going through."

On Nov. 15, 2005, threatening weather outside Ramsey's home in a community adjacent to the Madisonville Country Club sent the Basketball Hall of Famer into a closet in his bedroom for refuge.

There he rode out what proved to be a tornado.

"I expected to walk out of that closet and be standing in my bedroom, maybe with a hole in my ceiling," Ramsey said. "Instead, when I walked out, I was standing completely outside — and my house was 50-feet away, broken into pieces."

When one loses one's home and much of what was in it to the furies of Mother Nature, I wondered what was tougher: Dealing with the emotional impact of having a lifetime of memories potentially lost or the practical matters like having to find a new place to live and working with (getting settlement money from) insurance companies?

Both, Ramsey says, are off-the-charts stressful.

When a community is devastated by a natural disaster, Ramsey says insurance companies will ship adjusters from all around the country into the area so that they can start helping the affected by the next day.

"You've got to get an adjuster to your place, because you can't really do anything toward taking the next step in terms of cleaning up or looking for stuff (you want to keep) until they get a look at the damage and make an assessment," Ramsey said. "Usually, they will cut you an immediate check for, say, $10,000 to tide you over the first days (after a catastrophic storm)."

A longtime president of the Dixon Bank, Ramsey is a man of some means. In that sense, he was fortunate. When his home was destroyed, he owned a separate farm that had a house on it and was able to move there.

Still, Ramsey said there were two major practical challenges he faced. The first was getting a work crew lined up to come to his property and clean up what was left of his house at a time when, because of the storm, there was heavy demand for such services.

"I was lucky that I had a friend from another county that had a construction company," Ramsey said. "He sent a little bulldozer, some dump trucks and a back hoe to what had been my house."

Far more time consuming, Ramsey said, was getting meaningful estimates of the value of the property that had been inside his home so the insurance company could reimburse him for what he and his wife, Jean, had lost.

"I had seven beds in that house," Ramsey recalls. "We had to go to a store and price the value of sheets, a bed spread, a comforter, pillows, box springs, all the stuff you have on a bed. Then we multiplied it times seven and that was what (the insurance company) paid us. And you have to do the same thing for almost all your stuff."

As one of the stars of Adolph Rupp's 1951 NCAA championship team and the original "Sixth Man" for Red Auerbach's dynastic Boston Celtics, Ramsey had a particularly rich treasure trove of memorabilia in his home.

An autographed picture of the 1963 NBA champion Celtics at the White House meeting with President John F. Kennedy was lost. It has not been seen since.

A photo of Rupp with his then-young son, Herky, going through the receiving line at the Campbell House wedding reception for Ramsey and the former Jean Hardwick also went missing.

It was subsequently found and returned.

"It's got cracks on it and it's yellowed from being outside," Ramsey said. "But I keep it here in my office."

Ramsey, 79, and Jean did not rebuild on the lot where their house formerly stood. Instead, they added on to the farm house into which Frank moved after the storm and stayed there.

"My chimney is still standing on that lot," Ramsey says of the site of his former house.

Even once the people in places like Tuscaloosa and Ringgold rebuild their lives and return to normal, the survivors of tornadoes powerful enough to level whole neighborhoods are likely facing a lifetime of "weather nerves."

Says Ramsey: "I would be lying if I said I don't get nervous every time a thunderstorm blows through."