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Quotable Notables:  EXTRA! Inspiration

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Stardust Inspiration: Bill Ramsey’s rags to riches story has to be one of the most inspirational you’ll ever hear. Proudly calling himself an Okie, he and his family were the epitome of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” From those humble beginnings, Ramsey ended up partners in one of the world’s largest vegetable packing companies. Educational degrees didn’t pave his way. Hard work and an insatiable desire to learn all there was about the industry did. As a youth who once picked in the fields, he had an inferiority complex. But that only drove him harder to succeed. Not one to hoard, he has shared his spoils with the community he helped build, and played an integral part in making the National Steinbeck Center a reality in Salinas, California.

Bill Ramsey: an Ag Leader close to his Roots

Castle rock is a sandstone outcropping in the blonde Sierra de Salinas hills. Carved by water and weather, it looks like a castle. Some say that John Steinbeck played knight to his damsel sister there in a shack at the base of the rock.

There is another, smaller stand of spires and turrets nearby, beneath which the Marlene and Bill Ramsey home sits. It is an impressive home with a vaulted ceiling that pokes into the sky. Its windows frame the lioness hillsides of Corral de Tierra and the golfing greens that have tamed her.

In this house is a library that cradles well-read copies of nearly every book Steinbeck wrote. Moreover, when Bill tells the story of his family, it seems they drove right off the pages of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

In 1930, his parents sold their failing farm, piled all nine children into a Model B Ford and drove out of the Dust Bowl to California, the land of hope. Not long after they settled in the Salinas Valley, they had two more children. Bill was second to the last. And his story of the rise from poverty to agricultural and community leader is remarkable.

Ramsey, a trim 71-year-old, settles into a chair and his Paul Newman blue eyes dance with stories . . .

While his parents worked in the packing sheds, Bill would haul ice in his little red wagon – right past what would become the National Steinbeck Center. “I can stand on the center’s steps and see that little boy still,” says the board member.

Over time, he learned all he could about the bounty that grows in the fertile womb of the long valley. He conducted business with a handshake, as people did in those days, and with little more than a high school education, he became one of the giants in the produce industry.

Q: Do you mind being called an Okie?
A: Not at all. I am an Okie! When life was simple you could call someone an Okie and give them a nickname and nobody got mad, sued anyone or went to jail . . . Our family was poor but was never without dignity. The name Ramsey was known by everybody in town. Nobody got in trouble or went to prison. Okie? I wear it as a badge.

Q: So, how did you grow from seedling to big sprout?
A: After the Navy, I had one child and no money. So I took a part-time job at a packing company owned by H.W. Mann. After six months, when I was getting ready to return to school, he said, “Bill, you have a knack for this business. If you want to stay, and if we’re a success, you’ll get your share of that success.” I became his partner, and all the things he said came true.

Q: And you’ve been running ever since?
A: Actually, I’ve also been a long-distance runner for 24 years. I record my distances and I’ve run 18,000 miles: in the Boston Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, Spreckels, Hong Kong - where I got lost - the wall of China, etc.

Q: Why?
A: I want to be healthy. (Laughs) I have a type-A personality.

Q: As a kid who lived in the Alisal district, you say coming into town was culture shock?
A: I’d meet kids from other districts and find out they had wealth. You’re aware your parents work for these people. When I met my wife, Marlene, (at Salinas High School) she was one of those rich people I wondered about. It’s a little humbling.

Q: What do you remember of the Steinbeck controversy?

A: . . . We kind of hooked ourselves to Steinbeck’s star, when he became a Pulitzer Prize winner. We’re guilty of trying to spin off of his recognition and success. But, in doing so, we have brought a lot of additional success to his name.

Q: Your most backbreaking job?
A: I did pick strawberries and pit apricots in my junior-high years and it was backbreaking.

Q: What kind of contact have you had with field workers?
A: Plenty. I’ve been in produce 48 years and have had as many as 500, mostly Hispanic, employees. I learned to love the Hispanic people and their work ethic. Their backgrounds were probably just as humble as mine.

Q: Should we pause, while eating, and consider everything it took to bring us this food?
A: When you are involved in growing things, even though you’re not a farmer, you appreciate everything . . .

Q: Of the 35 vegetables your company packs, which do you hate?
A: I love them all. I may love spinach a little less. And, heck, until I came to the broccoli business in ‘55 I’m not sure I knew what broccoli was. We (family) lived in a world of potatoes, liver and gravy. Now I’m enamored by broccoli.

Q: Why does iceberg lettuce sell better than more colorful and nutrient rich greens?
A: Good question. It makes a nice salad. It’s not as prominent as it was, since the advent of red, butter, etc., lettuces. And romaine has really come on big time.

Q: Produce people:
a) play hard
b) work hard
c) are a clique
d) are down to earth
e) other

A: (a), (b), and (d). They might look like a clique from the outside but they invest everything they have in the business and take lots of risk. If you’re going to be in this business a long time, you’d better not lie, cheat or steal or you’ll get a bad reputation.

Q: What will we eat when farmland only grows buildings?
A: It won’t happen that way. We have more farmland in this valley today than 49 years ago. When I came to Mann, acreage yielded less than half what it does today. There are always ways to come up with better ideas, such as hothouses. When you breed some products they come more concentrated.

Q: How has your definition of wealth changed?
A: People say the harder you work the luckier you become. I feel so lucky it’s almost scary. But I never lose sight of where I came from and who I am. There were times I was driven by that inferiority complex. I just wanted to succeed in the race . . . As I get a little older, I want to make sure I do the right things for the right reasons. You go through life pushing yourself, but somewhere along the way you receive enough to get off that horse. I’ve gotten good at raising money now. Jim Gattis and I asked for $500,000 for the Steinbeck Center to be built. He said, “How does it feel – a couple of Okies out here trying to get money from Pat Tynan Chapman?” And guess what she said? “How about $1 million?” I learned that you have the ability to do things for the community because of your reputation.

Q: Your top moral?
A: I’d like to say integrity. Everyone wants to be well thought of.

 

 

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