Chancellor H.F. “Cotton” Robinson had a special sort of problem during his first year as the leader of Western Carolina University. It was 1974 and his bosses at the University of North Carolina system office had decided that WCU’s graduate programs — then housed in an old hospital in Oteen — would be moved to the UNC Asheville campus. The decision was largely one of efficiency. The hospital building was too costly to maintain, for example, and the library was better at UNCA.
Robinson knew the situation could become explosive. Putting one university’s programs on another university’s campus could turn academic rivalry into a full-blown fight. So he tapped a WCU alumnus who was already showing promise as a deft administrator. Harry Ramsey ’59 had been with the university 10 years when he became the chancellor’s assistant and “Western’s man in Asheville,” overseeing the move to UNCA’s campus. He would go on to become a true “citizen of Asheville,” as a longtime friend said, serving a host of civic organizations.
Ramsey died July 9, 2011. He was 77.
His trustworthiness and worldly view quickly earned him the respect of faculty and staff at both institutions. The fight that Robinson feared never materialized, and today the institutions are largely collaborators and not competitors. The graduate center at UNCA is a thriving part of the state’s higher education system.
Ramsey’s son, Marty Ramsey ’85, WCU’s director of alumni affairs, said his father loved working for the university. “He just felt a real indebtedness to Western,” Ramsey said. “He often told me he felt so very fortunate and privileged to work for his beloved alma mater.”
Ramsey retired in 1997 after 33 years of service. He is the recipient of WCU’s Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award. His friends described him as an elegant negotiator though he was never the most well-read person in the room. His idea of serious reading was the Asheville Citizen-Times, Sylva Herald, Newsweek and Time, said longtime friend Gurney Chambers ’61.
Yet, Chambers said, Ramsey could hold his own with anyone in academia when it came to problem-solving, especially involving people. Chambers, dean emeritus of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, said Ramsey loved negotiating so much that on road trips he would often check in at a motel only to cajole the clerk into giving him a better room.
Retired WCU public information director Doug Reed, another longtime friend, said Ramsey’s professional legacy was shepherding WCU’s transition to the UNCA campus. He was also a good guy, Reed said. “He was a great friend,” he said. “If you had Harry for a friend, you didn’t lose Harry as a friend. He kept his friendships.”
Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Contributions in Harry Ramsey’s memory may be made to the Marty Ramsey Summer School Endowed Scholarship Fund, which provides academic support for deserving student-athletes participating in intercollegiate athletics at WCU. Visit the website give.wcu.edu; send a check to Western Carolina University, Office of Development, 201 H.F. Robinson Administration Building, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723; or call 828.227.7124 (toll-free at 800.492.8496).