“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross lies your calling.” —a favorite of Jim Ramsdell, by Aristotle
We keep telling young people to follow their dreams. Here’s someone who did.
Jim Ramsdell grew up in 1960s Janesville. He always loved the outdoors and adventure. Little did he know how much of an adventure his life would be.
Ramsdell, 64, died suddenly May 4, taken by a brain aneurysm while he and his partner of 18 years, Lori Schneider, were visiting their hometown.
Jim took up motocross racing early on—both on dirt tracks and on ice. As a graduation prank, he rode his motocross bike through the halls of Craig High School.
As an adult, he once popped wheelies on his bike down Main Street after a day at the track.
Jim’s youngest brother, John, remembers seeing Jim, 13 years his elder, as a superhero.
John recalled the first time he saw Jim race on ice.
“He just shot out in front of everyone else by the third turn and never slowed down. I think he lapped everybody and lapped some people twice. Every week he would win and win.”
Trophies lined the walls of their parents’ living room, but that was not Jim’s calling.
Jim’s brothers Bob and John and good friend Cliff Stavn spoke to The Gazette on Sunday.
“His sense of humor and his sense of fun were infectious,” John said. “You weren’t around Jim very long before you and everyone else were laughing about something that he did.”
For all his mischief, Jim was kind and gentle and had a way with children and animals, they said. He nursed several injured crows and other animals back to health.
Schneider said birds would eat birdseed from Jim’s hand.
Stavn remembers watching the stars with Jim one night in northern Wisconsin. Jim made owl calls, eventually luring one to a nearby branch.
He loved working with his hands and didn’t want to go to college, so he got a job at Ossit Church Furniture out of high school, learning about fine woodworking. He later applied those skills to fixing up many of Janesville’s Victorian homes.
“He had a gift for working with wood and a real eye for beauty. That combination made him in real high demand,” Schneider said.
He was a success at woodworking, but he felt something was missing.
So he moved to Alaska, spending much of the 1990s there.
He fought depression for much of his life, and that played a role in his decision to leave, Bob said.
His sojourn in Alaska and subsequent career change seemed to help.
“It made such a profound change in his life. He felt he reconnected with the animal world and his inner spirituality and wanted a more quiet and meaningful life,” Schneider said.
Then as the century turned, Jim’s mother came down with a terminal illness.
“He essentially dropped his life and came to Wisconsin and for the final six months of her life was a primary caregiver for her,” Bob said.
His mother died in 2001, and it was around that time he met Schneider, and the two eventually moved to Bayfield and made a life there. And Jim found his calling.
It started with the discovery that he was naturally talented in woodcarving. He pursued that talent with a passion, studying books about it and creating sculptures of the wildlife he loved, Bob said.
“It invigorated him and filled him with an energy, a life force if you will, that almost propelled him there,” Bob said.
But that was not enough.
As he immersed himself in carving, he studied his subjects, learning about them and photographing them, and his time in Alaska helped him understand how the loss of habitat threatened wildlife.
He became an advocate for saving wildlife and habitats. He eventually supported himself by carving commissioned pieces, many of them large and amazingly detailed, but he found his true love was teaching about the need to save the wilderness and its inhabitants.
Ramsdell devised a one-man show in which he gave presentations about the need to protect wildlife. He gave the show a name that reflected his feelings about the topic: Our Shared Planet.
He turned a 7-by-16-foot trailer into solar-powered workshop/classroom and hit the road.
Although he never went to college, he mastered the woodcarving and the science needed for his chosen profession.
John, a middle school science teacher, said Jim knew his topic.
“The more I talked to him, the more impressed I was that he may not know some of the Latin words that I knew, but he had schooled himself. ... None of it was beyond him,” John said.
Climate change and its effects bothered him greatly.
“He felt like it’s not something to take lightly and we have to be good stewards of our world because it’s not guaranteed it’s going to be here forever,” Schneider said.
He saw the glaciers melting and the Alaskan landscape he knew changing before his eyes, Schneider said, and that drove him to carve ocean creatures, trying to make a statement with his creations.
In recent years, “He really was at such a powerful place in his career and loved what he did. He got up every day and went to the trailer and immersed himself in the energy of the creature he was re-creating,” Schneider recalled.The work put him in an almost meditative state. He would show Schneider a piece he was working on and tell her, “I don’t know where that comes from. It’s just something I never realized I could do, but it comes out. These creatures take on a life of their own. I’m just the creature that channels this energy to bring them to life.”
“I think it’s rare for people to find their passion and gifts in life,” Schneider said. “... And for him to discover them late in life—it just blossomed into something that brought such joy to him.”
Even though he spent half his life before finding his calling, he accomplished much.
While supporting himself with commissions—such as a coral reef for a client in the British Virgin Islands and an octopus he completed shortly before his death—Ramsdell hit the road with his workshop/classroom and preached his message.
He also agreed when people in the Bayfield area asked him to speak to students or arts groups, Schneider said, and he was invited to speak to troubled youths.
Bob said Jim was not outgoing, but he learned to step beyond the solitude and quiet of nature that he loved to be an impassioned, engaging voice for the environment. Bob found that impressive.
“Many people said this about him, that you became a better person because you were around him,” Schneider said. “He made you kind of want to rise above a little bit and think about what your choices were.”
Jim told Gazette columnist Anna Marie Lux in 2006: “I urge people to step outside the box. Follow your dream, and don’t be so tied to the financial world. The largest riches do not come in the form of money or possessions. They come in living a full life connected to your purpose.”
Jim had found his dream, and he had worked hard to make it real.
As his life ended, Ramsdell was able to give a little more to the planet he loved. His lungs, kidneys and liver went to people who will never know him.
“I felt his spirit was soaring again because he has given life to someone else,” Schneider said, “and that was so important to him, to be a good steward for the earth and all its creatures.”