Valley Lives - Ken Ramsay

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the July 03, 2013 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Soldier, diplomat, storyteller was 'funny as hell'

by Lucy Scholey

As a former worldly diplomat, Ken Ramsay had more than a few tales worth telling - and he could recite them in a handful of languages - but no story was perhaps as interesting as his own.

While Ramsay lived in more than a half-dozen countries and served in the Second World War, Ramsay is perhaps best remembered for his impromptu organ songs and poetry recitals performed at his Larrimac cottage whilst under the pressure of newspaper deadlines.

Valley Lives
Former Larrimac resident Ken Ramsay gets ready to blow out the candles on his 90th birthday cake in 2009. Photo courtesy Jennifer Ramsay.

On May 16, Ramsay died peacefully in Ottawa. He was 93.

A Toronto native, Ramsay started working as a captain with Canadian Intelligence in Holland in 1945, where he was in charge of a prison housing 9,000 German soldiers. It was there where he met Gerda Ferwerda, a Dutch ambulance driver. They later married and stayed together for 56 years, until she passed away.

In 1950, Ramsay joined the Trade Commissioner Service, which took him to Ottawa and abroad, including Belgium, Peru, Trinidad, San Francisco, Milan, Hong Kong and Beijing.

With his wife and their five children, the Ramsay family started renting the Larrimac cottage in 1960. Twelve years later, they bought the five acres of land and rebuilt their home.

The family came back every summer to take out the linen, sweep the house, prep the water pump and pick up their Chevy Malibu from the care of Harky's Garage (now Reparation Automobile Chelsea).

Chelsea's Janet Intscher first met Ramsay in Hong Kong, while taking a Mandarin language course. She said Ramsay practised learning the language by using tiles with Mandarin symbols whilst sitting on the john. Intscher's husband, Horst, was also posted in Hong Kong, and the two couples became friends. They also eventually moved to Chelsea.

"He always commanded attention," said Intscher. "He'd raise a finger and say, 'Now tell me...' And he'd ask a thought-provoking question."

Language was important to Ramsay and he knew eight fluently: Swedish, Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin, plus a little Flemish and Portuguese.

However, the day when he cracked a successful joke in Mandarin to a group of Chinese people, was the moment when he felt he had reached a milestone in his linguistic abilities, recalls his daughter, Chantal Ramsay.

"He did manage to get a whole roomful of Chinese to laugh at a joke," said the 57-year-old, who is based in Mexico City, working with companies that want to do business in Ontario.

At least four of the five Ramsay kids eventually worked in government and/or overseas. Sadly, the two oldest, Gordon and Sheila, predeceased their father due to medical issues.

In Larrimac, Ramsay was "like the pied piper of the neighbourhood," Chantal said, recalling moments spent around the fire, where her father engaged kids in his stories, like having them sound out rattlesnake noises.

It was perhaps no surprise that Ramsay also read to children at the Chelsea Library, wearing moose slippers, or volunteered at Chelsea Elementary School.

A one point, Ramsay was the poet laureate for the Low Down. The newspaper would fax a top story to him and he would fax back a poem or recite it over the phone for transcribing.

"It was all timely and topical and up to the moment we went to print," said former publisher Art Mantell. "He was novel. We thought it was funny as hell."

It was at that cottage where Sarah Weeks, 23, became friends with Ramsay's granddaughter.

Weeks said Ramsay was less like a grandfatherly figure to her and more like a friend, offering relationship advice and gossip. He would have her sit at the family's organ and pick a few keys. Then he would make up a song on the spot. He made up songs for Valentine's Day and birthdays, but he never knew how to read music until later in life when he learned from a computer program.

Weeks regularly visited Ramsay, even up to his final days at his condo in the Glebe, where he spent his latter years. "Towards the end, we really didn't have to say anything," she said, "I'd just go in and lay on the couch and we'd hold hands."

Ramsay leaves behind son Roger and daughters Chantal and Jennifer. He was predeceased by his wife, Gerda (nee Ferwerda) and their children Gordon and Sheila. There will be a ceremony of Ramsay's life on July 6 at 2 p.m. at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Ottawa. There will be a following graveside ceremony in Toronto on July 13 at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

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