He was an influential horse racing industry advocate, a respected business and civic leader, and an affable Charles Town native. That’s how area residents remembered Roger R. Ramey, who died Thursday at age 85 after a long battle with cancer.
“He was Mr. Jefferson County, as far as I’m concerned,” said Dickie Moore, a former director of racing at Charles Town Races and a friend of Ramey’s for more than 40 years. “Very classy. A-No. 1.”
Also active in the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Ramey owned and managed popular furniture, appliance and shoe stores in downtown Charles Town from 1971 until 1995.
As a businessman he came to know and befriend nearly everyone in the city and the county over the years, his friends and associates said, noting he led by example, always extending a friendly or encouraging word personally and professionally. His good-natured honesty and sincerity always stood out.
“Roger would always help everybody, and everybody liked him,” said Bill Chesley, a fellow businessman and another longtime friend.
“He would listen to any problem that you had and try to solve it,” said Ann Hilton, a Charles Town resident who plied the local horse racing circles with Ramey.
Born and raised in his mother’s boarding house that was once near the railroad tracks on North George Street, Ramey took to heart lessons about sympathizing with and trusting others, lessons he would apply as a businessman, said Ken Lowe, a prominent real estate agent and developer, and Ramey’s nephew.
Many of the boarders Ramey’s mother put up were traveling horsemen of modest incomes working short stints at the Charles Town racetrack, Lowe said. They didn’t always have the money in hand to pay the full rate for an overnight’s stay, and many were allowed to pay what they could when they could.
Ramey treated his own customers the same way — to pay what they could when they could, if they ever could, Lowe said.
A natural mediator, Ramey’s gentle disposition let him avoid conflict and smooth over disputes.
“He was a person of compromise who just wanted to work out whatever the problems were,” Hilton said.
Paul Espinosa, Jefferson County’s Republican representative for the 66th District in the House of Delegates, said he looked up to Ramey as a professional and personal role model for his ability to find areas of agreement and smooth over disputes.
“Roger was able to help bring people together,” said Espinosa, who worked under Ramey at the former Charles Town Races. “He was just very well respected. He was a credible guy. What he said you could rely on absolutely.”
Ramey was a founding director of the now 33-year-running West Virginia Breeders Classics and he took on various staff roles at the thoroughbred racetrack for two decades, including in a public relations position that Espinosa also served in for a decade.
“Roger had a lot of knowledge of the racing industry because he lived here and he knew a lot of people,” said Hilton, who started racing horses at Charles Town in 1959.
Living a full life
A Shepherd College graduate, Ramey served as a director of the former Shenandoah Federal Savings Bank in Martinsburg and the former Peoples Bank of Charles Town. He would serve as a director for the Chamber of Commerce from 1998 until he retired in 2016. He was honored as the chamber’s Citizen of the Year in 2005. And he stayed busy in various causes, events and charities, as happy leading as he was at working behind the scenes.
“He was just willing to do whatever needed to be done,” said Carol Holden, president of the West Virginia Breeders Classics.
Holden said it was Ramey, working with NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff, who applied his knowledge and connections in founding the Breeders Classics, a grand sporting event that supports and showcases West Virginia’s horse racing industry and Charles Town’s racetrack nationally.
The event, open only to horses bred and sired in West Virginia, has generated more than $25 million in revenue for the local horse industry. It draws about 7,500 people to the track and countless more people reached nationwide thorough cable sports coverage.
His role in helping to preserve horse racing in Jefferson County will be remembered as one of his most lasting achievements.
Ramey’s credibility with horsemen persuaded then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller to appoint him to the three-member West Virginia Racing Commission in 1979, even though Ramey was reluctant to accept the job, said Lowe. Raising a family, running his business and attending to other community demands, Ramey enjoyed a full life and was convinced back then he didn’t have time to spare for the commission.
But Rockefeller, impressed with Ramey’s reputation, was determined to persuade him, Lowe said. So, in a little-known sidelight of West Virginia politics, the governor offered Ramey a personal deal: He offered to ensure state funding would underwrite a new $9 million gymnasium that Shepherd University hoped to build at the time, according to Lowe.
Relenting to arm twisting for the sake of his his alma mater, Ramey went on to serve 12 years on the racing commission.
A fan of high school and college sports, Ramey faithfully followed Martinsburg High School’s basketball and football teams and he and Moore attended countless games together. Even driving two hours to cheer on a team wasn’t that unusual.
Ramey, standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall as a young man, was a talented basketball player in his own right. He played in a senior Olympics basketball league into his late 60s, winning silver and gold medals in his age group.
Also a classic car buff, Ramey relished spending his Sundays elbows deep in restoring old cars in the garage at his home in Tuscawilla Hills. One year, he donated a 1961 Corvette he restored as a raffle prize for a fundraiser for the Charles Town racetrack, Lowe said. Another car he restored and sold, a 1953 Buick, was later accepted as a historic showpiece by the Smithsonian Institute.
Saving Charles Town’s racetrack
Ramey resigned from the commission to become president of Charles Town Races with the goal of promoting the racetrack’s proposed takeover by Penn National Gaming in Wyomissing, Pa. The controversial takeover would bring slot machines and extra revenue to prop up the now 85-year-old racetrack, which helps anchor both the local horse racing industry and the county’s agricultural economy.
An earlier voter referendum had failed to allow slot machines at the racetrack, but Ramey’s efforts proved instrumental in a subsequent referendum that passed in 1996.
“Roger played a central role in helping the community come to the conclusion that he had that Penn National was a quality operator and that they would fulfill the commitments that they have made to the community to make substantial investments in the Charles town Races,” Espinosa said.
Lowe said that without that gambling revenue the racetrack would likely now be a housing subdivision or a shopping mall, said Lowe, who followed in his uncle’s footsteps last year to serve on the gaming commission.
“It’s about keeping racing here,” Lowe added of gaming in Jefferson County. “It’s about keeping the county green by keeping racing here.”
The Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Race would rise in 2010 after voters approved table games, another source of revenue for the racetrack and horse racing. The gambling also adds millions in tax revenues to local government coffers.
Ramey would remain at the racetrack working in several positions until his retirement in 2016.
“He did a lot for everybody at the track,” Holden said.
Lowe said Ramey would be an instructive role model for today’s community leaders in Jefferson County. Area civic leaders have lost sight of the mutual trust and respect necessary to bring people together to solve problems and allow a community to thrive, he said.
“If people work together, if they trust each other, if they’re honest with each other—no hidden agendas,” Lowe said. “That’s the way small towns survive.”
Ramey was under the care of the Blue Ridge Hospice in Winchester, Va., at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife, Sandra, four children, two step-children and nine grandchildren.
At his request, no funeral services are planned.
That’s just what you would expect of him, say friends. He was a low-key guy who enjoyed helping others — with a smile but never under a spotlight.
“Just a really stand-up person,” Espinosa said. “Just a great business person. Just a great friend, a great, great human being.”