Long life of passion, principle ends at 78

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Thursday, June 17, 2010
— When Dick Ramsdell was 78, he offered his seven grandchildren laptop computers if they would agree to take a 10-week summer course in poetry, taught by him.

He taught them rhyme and meter and how to analyze poetry. He taught them to write.

“They wrote beautiful poetry. He should have been a teacher,” said Mary Baban-Ramsdell, his second wife.

“He was a teacher He just wasn’t in a school building.”

Afterward, the children told him they loved the laptops, but they would have done it without them, Mary said.

The poetry course was just one in a lifetime of ideas and service to others. Ramsdell died Friday after squeezing about as much as a person can from 80 years on this planet.

The Janesville man had a rare passion for his family, his community, his country and for life in general. He was a man of so many parts, it would be impossible to list them all here.

He baked bread regularly for decades and was known for his chili, vegetarian dishes and his Sunday pancake breakfasts.

He delved deeply into religion and politics and loved poetry, but he was also a prankster and inveterate teller of jokes.

Until the end, Ramsdell was joking with and embarrassing his family and his nurses, said son Jim.

Some people were put off by his contrarian, blunt way of discussing issues, but he meant no harm, and many learned to love him, said friend and fellow peace activist Brad Munger.

“He’s going to be sorely missed in the community,” Munger said.

Ramsdell had remarkable energy, and he gave much of it to his city. At age 37, as he announced his candidacy for Janesville School Board, he already had an impressive community resume: president of the junior chamber of commerce and of the Toastmasters Club, board member of Janesville Little Theatre, member of the Kiwanis and Human Rights Council, and a Cub Scout leader.

Not to mention providing for his family by running several dry-cleaning establishments and coin-operated laundries.

Late in life, Ramsdell founded the Janesville Unitarian Universalist congregation.

“He was always questing. He was always searching for deeper meaning and deeper truth,” Munger said. “ … He was a very smart individual, and he was a guy who was not afraid to ask very tough questions of himself and of others.”

“He just wanted to know things. He wanted to know how things work. He wanted to know about the universe,” Mary said.

Ramsdell was a longtime Republican. He voted for George W. Bush the first time around. Then he had a change of heart.

Turning points included the Iraq war and anti-terrorism measures that Ramsdell felt infringed on constitutional principles, Mary said.

Ramsdell’s political thinking turned left—and to peace vigils. That’s where Mary first noticed him. She wasn’t impressed, but soon afterward, she attended a local Unitarian service, and there was Ramsdell, leading the service.

The two were married for over six years.

“The church was very important to Dick,” Mary said.

He liked the fact that Unitarians embrace all faiths but also that the church provided something that Ramsdell thought his city lacked.

“It was important to Dick that through that church there be a liberal voice in Janesville,” Mary said.

Ramsdell’s first wife, Marjorie, died in 2002 after 50 years of marriage. They raised seven children.

Jim said his father encouraged his children not to continue in the family business and to think outside the box.

“He raised his children to live their own lives, in their own directions, and they are a creative, engaged group of people. It’s a remarkable family,” Mary said.

Jim found an artistic side and put it into woodcarving and an environmental-awareness nonprofit called Our Shared Planet.

Jim said the organization’s focus on the sacred, natural places of the Earth comes from his childhood canoe trips with his father.

“Every one of the children have their own special characteristics and interests and projects they do for the community,” Mary said, and they got them from Dick and their mother.

“His legacy is his children, his grandchildren and the people he touched in his life,” Mary said. “He will live on.”

Last updated: 2:03 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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