An Unforgettable Tragedy
“I can walk for miles and miles and miles along an ocean, walk for miles and miles and miles in the woods, lose complete track of time…and love every minute of it, following in my father’s footsteps.”
Kelly Ann Ramsey is sharing more about her trips as a child to the wilds of Canada with her dad during summer breaks from school.
“We continued [our Canada trips] every June, and every August he allowed me to travel with his brother, my Uncle Don, and his family. By the time I finished high school, I had been to almost every state and seen every historical attraction, thanks to my Uncle Don and Aunt Phyllis,” she beams.
“My father walked probably three to five miles a day in the woods. One time I went searching for him, and discovered him sitting on a tree stump. I said ‘What are you doing out here?’, and he said ‘I’m talking to your grandfather.’”
Ramsey has had an intimate relationship with mortality for nearly her entire life. She understands, through her mother’s example, that we each carry our death inside of us. Most of us don’t know exactly when we will die, but we know it is inevitable. This knowledge creates a deep sense of urgency in Ramsey to make an impact, leave a legacy. And her energy levels respond accordingly.
“The first funeral I ever went to in my life was my mother’s. It was awful. I would never have done that to a child, ever. A mistake was made there. I remember running. Running and screaming and crying at the cemetery.
“The most vivid memory that I have of my mother is watching her die. My mother died at the age of…” Ramsey stops the number before it comes out of her mouth. “…in her mid-forties. I was twelve. She died a very…cancer treatment was barbaric in the Sixties. It’s brutal how you treat cancer today. It was worse then.”
Ramsey talks about how mom did her best to keep her illness private.
“I’m not sure I really realized how sick she was at the time, but there was an incident which caused me to suddenly realize how sick she was, which was tragic. And I struggle with tears talking about this story…”
But she tells the story anyway, because Ramsey can deal with struggle.
“I was maybe ten years old,” she begins, “and I came running into the house because I had to use the bathroom, and I came skidding into the bathroom and my mother was in the tub. And I had never seen the mastectomy before, and I had never seen the impact of radiation therapy. She was in the tub, obviously naked, and was instantly startled by the abruption of the ten-year old running into the bathroom.”
What did ten-year old Kelly do?
“I stood there screaming at the top of my lungs. Her chest was concave because she never had reconstruction surgery…I think she knew she was going to die. And I’ve had a nightmare about it as recently as a couple years ago. I was really plagued with this nightmare for…decades, decades of my life.”
What sticks out about the incident the most?
“It isn’t the scar, the one missing breast at the time. It was the burnt-ness. She was undergoing radiation at the time and she was fire-engine red-orange crispy. You could see the pain emanating from the skin. I think I knew right then that she was gonna die.
“And I can still see it,” she finishes.
The indelible events of Ramsey’s life say a lot about who she is, and they inform not only why she does what she does, but they inform the way that she does it.
Kelly Ann Ramsey is trying to be a mom for sons and daughters who either don’t have one or have an absent mom. She knows what it’s like for a child to not have a mother in their life, and a mother who is not present or involved in their child’s growth and development is just as heartbreaking as not having a mom at all.
“Even though I lost her so early in life, the impact of her was ever-present. People loved her dearly, and while most of them have passed on, they made sure I knew her legacy,” she says.
Ramsey mentions that one of her mother’s former social work colleagues, after years of seeing Ramsey in the press, sent her a letter sharing a remembrance of Ramsey’s mother. The framed letter hangs proudly in Ramsey’s home, for all to see.
“But my father was never the same. I’ve never seen a man love a woman more than he loved her. And he struggled with that. He struggled with that.”
After her mother’s death, Ramsey’s father became addicted to sorrow, the sorrow of losing the only woman he ever truly loved. This woman, through her love, increased R.W. Ramsey’s station in life. In his mind, without her, he was lost.
“My father never remarried. I’ve never seen a man love a woman more than my father has loved my mother. I’ve never seen that. I’m certain that plays a role in [my personal relationships]. I’ve never seen a man love a woman more than he loved her.”
For young Kelly, the loss of one parent was soon followed by the disappearance of the other.
“I lost my father when I lost my mother. Period. My father never missed a day of work, he was never reprimanded as far as I know. He cooked dinner and we ate together every night. He retired, never was on suspension, I never remember him coming home saying he was suspended. But after dinner my father went downstairs, and was there until he fell asleep, night after night after night.”
How did this make her feel?
“He didn’t do it to be mean to me. He never beat me, he never was abusive to me, there was always food, the house was always clean. He was simply absent, absent in his own sorrow. I felt so alone. I missed my mother and I felt so sorry for him. He got up every morning and went to work until he retired. He was a professional. But the story was the same most nights.”
Ramsey, an only child, essentially had to raise herself. So as she talks about values to kids in her courtroom — sacrifice, measurable growth, accountability, excellence, respect — what she’s really imparting, without telling them her story, is “If I can do it, you can do it. Yeah, you made some bad decisions. Yeah, you screwed up, but you can change your life around. All it takes is action. Decide to do it, and act on it.”
“Counsel Sean K. Kowalski sent a letter to the governor on my behalf when I previously applied for an appointment to the bench,” Ramsey says. “I have always been honored by his praise, and it is to that very standard that I aspire every day to conduct my courtroom.”
From Kowalski’s letter: “Frankly, I have absolutely no knowledge of Referee Ramsey’s personal life, except for that which she shared with litigants in the context of a case. But what I have seen of her professional abilities forces me to take the time to write. She brings an obvious understanding of the stories behind the people who stand before her. This understanding produces respect. The respect in turn infuses her praise with meaning and her criticism with credibility. In short, she ‘connects’ with the men, women and children whose lives come before her. Because she cares about the litigants, she works hard for them. Her courtroom, her staff, and her decorum all reflect the work ethic of someone who values, not disdains helping troubled families.”
“Not Cadillacs…Just Chevrolets”
All life has been about since the dawn of humankind, since cavemen and cavewomen were focused on surviving the winter, is improving our station. What puts kids in Kelly Ann Ramsey’s courtroom, at the core of their behavior, is a deep-seated separation anxiety. Ramsey recognizes this in her litigants, and helps them overcome their anxieties through practical application of timeless wisdom, thus improving their station in life.
One day, after years of drowning himself in sorrow, R-Dub finally decided enough was enough.
“When I was an undergraduate,” Ramsey says, “my father said to me ‘I’m going on a trip’. He came back, and just snapped out of it. He never had another drink, and remained that way for the last twenty to twenty-five years of his life.”
Her father has since passed on.
“My fortieth birthday was at the hospice center with him. He had his heart attack and stroke when I was thirty-nine, so I was an orphan at thirty-nine for all practical purposes.”
With a smile, Ramsey adds, “But even at the height of his sorrow, he never missed a day of work, a home-cooked meal, or that June trip to the wilds of Canada.”
The fifth thing in Ramsey’s assignment folder is a list of movies whose narratives focus on individual and team achievement, persevering through adversity, and reaching goals, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.
But there’s a certain type of adversity lurking below the surface of Wayne County. A seedy underbelly of dishonesty and manipulation.
Ramsey begins to lead us down the rabbit hole.
“I’ve been marching in the peace rallies in Detroit. When the march in honor of a murdered two-month old — a murder which occurred a few blocks from my childhood home — took place, I walked with the people. I’m well-known in that pocket of the city, and of course other pockets. During the march, a man came up to me whom I recognized, but couldn’t place his name. I apologized for not remembering who he was exactly, and he said ‘I’m so-and-so from such-and-such congressional district.”
Ramsey says she stopped dead in her tracks, and became indignant. She looked the man in the eye, poked her finger in his chest.
“I said, ‘Please explain to me why I can’t get an interview for an endorsement.’ He put his hands on my shoulders, gave me a little pat and said ‘Come on, Ramsey. Everybody knows you don’t pay to play.”’
Anyone with even a cursory exposure to what’s going on in the U.S. right now realizes that a lot of government is corrupt.
We are living in a fascinating time in an amazing country, where one can get ahead and improve their station in life through hard work, perseverance, and self-discipline. The fact is, the deck is becoming increasingly stacked against the poor, the working class, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised.
Ramsey wants to level the playing field for everyone. But not all agree that everyone deserves our best help. She provides an example of the indifference some have, illustrating how tilted the playing field has become.
“I have had some horrific bosses in my life. And I am of the opinion that when you can’t attack someone’s credentials, the ugliest of us attack them personally. That’s their idea of leveling the playing field. They can’t meet me up here,” she lifts her hand above her head, “so they try to bring me down.
“One time I had a boss call me into their office. They said, ‘You’re working too hard, Kelly. You’re gonna burn yourself out in a couple of years.’”
Ramsey flashes a look of disgust and shakes her head at the thought of ‘burning out’.
She continues, “‘You don’t understand, Kelly — we’re not making Cadillacs here, just Chevrolets. Stop treating every litigant as if they’re a Cadillac.’”
Her face contorts into obvious anger.
“I have loathed and resented that comment since the moment I heard it, because it speaks to the problem of generational neglect and abuse, and the mentality which prevents solving that exact problem. That [upset me]. That conversation still blows my mind,” she finishes.