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Looking Back - Ramsay, like May, was a regional and state pacesetter


Much has been written and said recently on retiring Simmons First National Corporation Chief Executive Officer Tommy May’s positive influences on Southeast Arkansas and the state as a whole.

May is quick to praise one of his mentors, Louis L. Ramsay Jr., who was not only a May predecessor at Simmons, but also recruited May to the company.

The 10th anniversary of Ramsay’s death will occur Jan. 4. But it’s his life and numerous achievements that are most remembered.

Ramsay, born at Fordyce in 1918, briefly left the state after graduating from high school. He was driven to Tuscaloosa, Ala., by another Fordyce product with bigger days ahead.

Paul “Bear” Bryant was then an assistant football coach at the University of Alabama, where he had played the game. Ramsay was an athlete, and Bryant saw within him the makings of a fine quarterback. So did University of Arkansas coach Fred Thomsen.

Both Bryant and Thomsen recruited Ramsay. Each offered him a football scholarship. Ramsay felt called to Fayetteville, but small-town friendship won out and a persistent Bryant got the nod.

But after Ramsay arrived on the Alabama campus and began football practice, he became uncomfortable. Bryant kept a caring eye on his hometown project. Ramsay nevertheless began to long for Fordyce and Arkansas. Ramsay started losing sleep as he questioned his decision.

Meanwhile, Thomsen maintained pursuit of Ramsay, who was “uncommitted” until actually participating in a game.

Ramsay told Bryant of his doubts, and Bryant told Ramsay that he would be fine and was simply going through typical withdrawal from his family and familiar surroundings. Bryant challenged Ramsay to man up and honor his Alabama decision.

Ramsay remained discontented, especially with a new and improved scholarship offer from Thomsen that included law school after his playing career. Ramsay began praying for resolution, and finally offered a deal to God.

A game was approaching, and a bus to Arkansas was due on campus that morning. Ramsay knew meeting it could be a test. If he missed it, he would assume it was God’s will that he remain at Tuscaloosa. But if he caught the bus, he would see an Arkansas return as divine intervention.

Ramsay packed his suitcases and scurried to the bus stop.

Suffice it to say, he made it home.

Ramsay would letter as a Razorback quarterback in 1940 and ‘41. He then obtained a law degree.

He joined Simmons First National Bank’s Board of Directors in 1952 and was elected president in 1970. He was SFNC’s chairman and CEO from 1973-83 and is thus far the only person to have led both the Arkansas Bar and Arkansas Bankers associations.

He served on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1970-81 and chaired it for four years. Ramsay was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2003.

He received a multitude of awards for his varied professional, education and civic accomplishments, and had scholarships established in his name.

Eventually referred to as “Mr. Southeast Arkansas,” Ramsay maintained his “small-town boy” character.

More than a half-century after his Alabama experience, he shared with this writer a letter he received from Bryant within days of his Tuscaloosa departure. Bryant expressed disappointment and suggested it might not be too late for Ramsay to return to Alabama. Bryant cautioned that Ramsay likely wouldn’t receive a good education at Arkansas.

The writer inspected the letter and instantly commented with a laugh that “education” had been misspelled.

“It is?” Ramsay quizzed as he inspected the brief note. “It is! Well, I’ll be. I’ve had that letter all this time and never noticed that.” He grinned as he suggested that his failure in spotting Bryant’s boo-boo might indicate why he became a banker instead of an editor.

Who should be credited for Arkansas’ gain and Alabama’s loss of Ramsay?

Somewhere in this world rests the soul of an unknown but appreciated bus driver, who had already pulled away when Ramsay arrived at Alabama’s campus station. Ramsay said he figured he had missed his opportunity to return home. He raced after the bus and stretched to tap its rear, figuring the driver probably wouldn’t delay his schedule with a second stop.

But the courteous driver braked and opened the bus door, allowing a winded Ramsay aboard.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Do you have a question on a local historical event or figure, or a story of photo from Jefferson County’s past to share? Email Rick Joslin at rjoslin@pbcommercial.com.