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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

MISTER BEN

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
Most of us go through life with at least one unfinished important chore. The one I won't complete is writing a book about Ben Ramsey of San Augustine.

I simply waited too late. Mister Ben passed away in 1985, taking with him a monumental amount of material that only he could have provided for such a book.

If I had finished the book about Mister Ben, I probably would not have written about his career as a state representative, state senator, secretary of state, lieutenant governor and railroad commissioner--a career which spanned 45 years and would have made an important book.

Instead, I think I would have written about his razor-sharp wit and homespun philosophy.

Mister Ben had the rare talent to look at you with an unmoving stone face and without blinking an eye, crack a remark that left you wondering if he was serious or not. Most of the time, he wasn't and, despite all the honors that came his way during his 81 years, he never took himself seriously.

Even today, years after his death, Mister Ben is remembered for his dry East Texas wit and "Ramsey-isms" are still quoted in the hallowed halls of the Texas Capitol in Austin.

Here are a few of the best I remember:

* When a young reporter asked Ramsey what time the Texas Senate would come to order, Mister Ben deadpanned: "Son, the Senate never comes to order in Texas...it just meets."

* On another occasion, someone asked Ramsey what a governor did in Texas. He responded: "Not much, except when a district judge dies and the governor has to appoint a successor. When that happens, the governor has to lie to nine friends and tell one the truth."

* While presiding over the Senate, a senator tried to question another senator who was speaking. The latter declined to yield the floor on the grounds he might lose the floor. Ramsey banged the gavel. "The Senator refuses to yield because of fright."

* On inviting citizens to come see the legislature, Ramsey observed that the invitations are made in the same spirit of a banker friend who noticed one of his customers with a downhearted look in the bank lobby. The banker finally approached the customer and said: "I'd like to know--if it doesn't concern money--what's troubling you."

* A friend came by Ramsey's office in the Capitol and found ten important persons waiting to see him. The friend sneaked around to a side door into Ramsey's private apartment and found him alone, reading his morning newspaper. The friend told him, "Mister Ben, there's a roomful of important people out there, waiting to see you." Without lowering his newspaper, Ramsey muttered: "Well, sit down and be quiet. Maybe they'll go away."

* During a committee session, a Senator remarked to Ramsey about a witness, "That man is working under a great handicap. He's stone-deaf...he can't hear a thing." Ramsey quipped: "He doesn't look handicapped to me. He doesn't have to listen to what he's saying."

* Ramsey hated to campaign and seldom made a political speech. His friends did all the work for him. Once during a summer campaign, Ramsey happened to wander by his own campaign office while a friend was on the telephone, asking for contributions. Ramsey reached into his own pocket, pulled out all the pocket change he had, and handed it over.

* With his slouch hat, rumpled suits and scuffed shoes, Ramsey sometimes resembled an unmade bed. On special occasions such as inaugurals, his wife would insist that he get a haircut. He once grumbled: "She acts like it was her hair."* Shortly after his election victory over 12 opponents for lieutenant governor, a political observer stopped Ramsey on the street and began to explain to him all the various issues that resulted in his unprecedented election. After the observer finished, Ramsey said: "You've overlooked one thing." "What's that?" asked the expert. "I got more votes" said Ramey.

Shortly before he died, the Texas Senate placed a bust of Ramsey in the Senate chamber, not far from the podium where he presided. Every time I look at Ramsey's stern bronze countenance, I keep expecting Mister Ben to move his lips and repeat what he said at the dedication:

"Now they've gone and messed up the dignity of the Senate...what little it had."

All Things Historical
September 17-23, 2000
Published by permission.
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Bob Bowman, a former president of the East Texas Historical Association, is the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore. He lives in Lufkin.)
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