Ramsey's 'wonderful life' celebrated Friends remember spirit, compassion

June 22, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Friends and colleagues celebrated the life of Norman P. Ramsey yesterday with anecdotes of his splendor as a trial lawyer, his compassion and wisdom as a judge, his devotion to his family -- and his handshake.

Nearly 600 people attended the memorial service at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore to pay tribute to Judge Ramsey, 70, a retired U.S. District Court judge who died at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore last Tuesday of a heart attack.

Among those attending were U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Also present was former state Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr., who once stood before the judge as a criminal defendant.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a close friend of Judge Ramsey, was not at the service because he was returning from a 15-day trade mission to Europe, a spokesman said. Mr. Schaefer was due back in Maryland yesterday afternoon.

Judge Ramsey guided the first of Mr. Schaefer's four successful mayoral campaigns and served as president of the city school and fire boards during Schaefer administrations.

The service opened with music played by a string quartet. Then a steady stream of speakers stepped to the microphone to praise the one-time confidant of Maryland political leaders.

"We are together to celebrate a wonderful, wonderful life," said Mr. Sarbanes, a Democrat who recommended in 1980 that President Jimmy Carter nominate Judge Ramsey to the bench.

"Norman was really a citizen. He made this community work. He was such a vibrant spirit that I don't think anyone who ever came into contact with him will ever forget his sincerity and warmth," Mr. Sarbanes said.

David R. Owen recalled meeting Judge Ramsey about 50 years ago when both were serving in the Marines aboard the battleship Arkansas.

"He held out his hand, with the long fingers close together and the thumb upright like a submarine periscope and said, 'You're Dave Owen from Baltimore; I'm Norm Ramsey from Baltimore,' " Mr. Owen recalled, extending his right arm to demonstrate. "If you never shook hands with Norm Ramsey, you've never had a handshake."

Mr. Owen is a senior partner at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, the law firm of which Judge Ramsey was chairman before his appointment to the federal bench in Baltimore, where he served for 11 years before taking semi-retirement as a senior judge in 1991. He rejoined the firm in October.

"He had an absolutely unique combination of intellect and personality," Mr. Owen said. "Given a couple of hours, Norman Ramsey could take on any new subject and master it."

Mr. Broadwater faced Judge Ramsey in 1984 after being convicted on a federal food stamp fraud charge. The judge sentenced him to six months in prison.

"When he sentenced me, he did it with understanding and compassion," said Mr. Broadwater, a Prince George's County Democrat. "He could have been harsh and ruined my life, but he gave me a second chance. People make mistakes. We need more people like Judge Ramsey who will give a second chance."

Peggy Ramsey broke into tears as she talked about her father's "will and gritty determination" and the improvement he showed that made many believe he might beat the odds and recover fully from an April 10 heart attack that hospitalized him until last week's fatal one.

Ms. Ramsey is one of four daughters Judge Ramsey had with his first wife, the former Mary Margaret "Peg" Quarngesser, who died in 1979. The couple had been married for 34 years.

Former Baltimore Circuit Judge Mary Arabian, a longtime friend of Judge Ramsey, recalled that he was disheartened for a while after his wife's death. Then along came the former Tucky P. Heller, a dynamo whom he married in 1982.

"Norm regained his natural warmth and enthusiasm," Ms. Arabian said. "I love Tucky for that, and I always will."

Craig B. Merkle, a former law clerk, said his mentor was like a star baseball player who made everyone around him better.

"He showed us all what is possible, what we're capable of. He showed us that a public servant didn't have to have a public ego," Mr. Merkle said. "He showed us that after losing the love of his life for 34 years that he could love again."

In a Meyerhoff corridor, court stenographer Linda Prince remembered Judge Ramsey's fast start on the bench. He became a judge on Oct. 30, 1980, and was in court the next day, she said. He immediately tried to dispose of "old dogs" -- cases that had lingered for years.

"It never ceases to amaze me," Ms. Prince said. "That was an incredible thing. Since he did that, I've been waiting for another judge starting on the bench to do the same thing. No one has repeated that."

Katherine E. Brown, a law clerk two years ago, recalled the judge's reveling in stories about practicing law in Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s, when nearly all city lawyers knew each another. She saw his genteel nature as a throwback to that era.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Judge Ramsey is survived by three other daughters, Mary Ramsey of New Hope, Pa., Christine Ramsey of Narberth, Pa., and Ann Ramsey of Philadelphia; three stepsons, Andrew Heller of Baltimore, Tom Heller of DuBois, Pa., and Gerry Heller of Aptos, Calif.; a stepdaughter, Jill Heller of Longwood, Fla.; three grandchildren; and five step-grandchildren.

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