Late director gave MITES structure, vision, heart

Many who knew William Ramsey recall him as a friend, mentor, and deliverer of tough love. He was a champion of young people and devoted his life to securing them access to meaningful education. Ramsey, a 1951 alumnus of MIT, served as executive director of the MIT Engineering Special Programs (ESP) from 1988 until his death in 1995 and watched over the rising high school seniors who participated in Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) with a stalwart spirit. Ramsey set precedents by infusing his unique brand of discipline that established a framework for executive directors to come. His colleagues and friends within the MIT community remember him as the solemn, kind leader who found joy in giving his students the opportunities to realize their potential.

William Ramsey, MITES director from 1988 to 1995

Setting precedents
MITES 1993 alumnus Dedric Carter served as executive director of the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP), which spun out from ESP to focus specifically on serving underrepresented and underserved middle and high school students, from 2006 to 2008. Carter participated in MITES during Ramsey’s administration, and he recalls Ramsey’s no-nonsense style of running the program. Carter explains that although Ramsey rarely smiled, the love and passion he had for his students could be seen just below the surface.

“The one time you could see him smile was when he talked about his kids,” says Carter. “He was ex-military,” says Carter. “That grandfatherly guy who loved you but didn’t smile a lot.”

Former OEOP Executive Director and MITES 1993 alumnus Dedric Carter paid tribute to Ramsey at the MITES 40th Anniversary Launch Party on July 18, 2015.

“He was very honest” 
Ramsey’s dauntless approach to serving at the helm of the ESP was revered by his colleagues, many of whom were his close personal friends. One such friend was Mike Craig, a MITES calculus instructor since 1977. Craig appreciated Ramsey’s stern nature and unfailing honesty. Ramsey’s directness was also one of his most recognized traits among those who knew him well. “One thing I liked about Bill was that you never left wondering what he thought,” says Craig. “He was very honest.”

Ramsey introduced stronger governance to MITES during his tenure. “He brought structure and a sense of discipline in terms of staff and students,” says Craig. “His expectations were all very high, [and those expectations were] a standout for Bill.” Ramsey was not just a leader to his students and faculty, he was also a father figure. When issues arose, he handled them swiftly so that that the mission of MITES was always at the forefront. “He was very protective of the program,” says Craig. “Everybody felt very secure in the maintenance and future of [MITES]. He had a lot of integrity.”

Turning experiences into passion
Carlos Herrera, a MITES 1991 alumnus and good friend of Ramsey, thinks back on the executive director’s effect on him and the MIT community. “Seeing someone from Bill’s generation who made it through MIT was inspirational,” says Herrera. Ramsey attended MIT during the Civil Rights era, and he encountered more adversity in college than the struggle of an MIT course load. “He certainly grew up in a different time, and I’m sure that what he had to overcome never would have been easy,” says Herrera. “I admire and respect him for that. It’s something that in turn, translated into this deeply held set of beliefs he had and motivation that drove what he did. His own experiences contributed to his passion and motivation while he was at the helm of the MITES program.”

Herrera came to know Ramsey at the start of MITES in 1991, when Ramsey pointed the nervous high school senior toward the dining hall that first evening. “He was very much all business in the way he addressed students in the program, had a very calm and collected way of communicating, then I realized he was a very good guy,” says Herrera. He knew Ramsey from a distance during MITES, but developed a close relationship with him when he worked as a teaching assistant for the program in 1994. Since Herrera was from Puerto Rico, the two planned a recruiting trip in the winter, during which Herrera would assist Ramsey in hosting events for parents and students on the island.

“That was one of the times I got to talk to him the most,” says Herrera. “I know that he loved St. Kitt’s, and he used to tell me stories about what he would eat and drink there.” Among his favorites was a guava berry beverage that he enjoyed while on vacation. When Herrera learned of Ramsey’s love of tropical drinks, he started bringing coquito back from Puerto Rico when he returned to school every semester. The gift of coconut rum became a tradition between Ramsey and Herrera, as did their moments of humor. “He had this serious expression in his face, but then he would sit back in his chair and have the greatest belly laugh,” says Herrera. “He had a good heart and a soft side for sure.”

Part of a legacy
Laura Robinson, an alumna of the inaugural MITES 1975 class and executive director of ESP immediately following Ramsey from 1995 to 1998, also knew Ramsey as a close friend. Ramsey met Robinson for the second time while he was interviewing for a different position at MIT, when he realized that their families used to live in the same three-story home in Cambridge. “We bonded through growing up in the same house and became friends,” says Robinson.

Staying true to the foundation that Ramsey built for MITES, one of Robinson’s goals was to incorporate a focus on entrepreneurship through “MITE2S,” which invited entrepreneurs to MIT to host trade fairs for the students. The purpose of an entrepreneurial component was to empower students to feel confident in starting their own companies. “[The idea that] I don’t necessarily have to be an employee, and I can make my own company—that was building off the base that Bill had started,” says Robinson.

Ramsey’s vision continued in other ways during Robinson’s administration. “[MITES] was just built out of love. There was [almost] no staff, and very little for us to run on other than commitment to the students… It was heartwarming, and I think Bill would see that as well.”

Giving back 
Robinson believed in Ramsey’s hopes for MITES and made it her mission to carry them out during her directorship. Her commitment to his plans was born out of deep respect for Ramsey and the goal to be the kind of leader he would admire. “His students came first,” says Robinson. “He was not looking for the next assignment, but looking to give back to MIT and the students.”  She sought to continue his theme of giving back by creating the William H. Ramsey ’51 MITES Fund in his name, which provides a partial scholarship for one MITES student every year.

“I thought that he would have liked to see a legacy and continuity,” says Robinson. “It would keep interest and the [MITES] program alive, and [provide] financial stability for the future… I’m pleased that it’s continued.” The William Ramsey Award, also in his name, is presented to one MITES student each year for his or her commitment to teamwork and good citizenship.

Ramsey’s legacy contributes to what MITES is today: a family of underrepresented and underserved students impassioned about science and engineering.

“Bill Ramsey was a role model by his very presence,” says former MITES faculty advisor Dr. Leon Trilling. “He gave students respect for hard work and awareness that they had the same opportunities as any other ambitious young person…They [would find] themselves in a group of minority students just as bright as they were. Bill certainly fostered that spirit.”

—Sydney Lester