After 37 years of public service Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey is retiring. Well known for his sense of compassion and personal integrity, he has left a lasting impression with all those who have worked with him.
Looking back on his years of service just days before his 10-year run as mayor comes to a close, Ramsey waxed nostalgic about the ups and downs of guiding Covington through a period of unprecedented growth.
"I have mixed emotions," said Ramsey at the close of his last council meeting as mayor on Dec. 17. "It's really been a pleasure sitting in this chair. I've had a good time, and thank goodness I've had some good people to work with."
When Ramsey was first elected mayor in 1997 the city's yearly budget was $53 million. Ten years later it had grown to $123 million.
Working together with Newton County, Covington in the last 10 years experienced a tremendous surge in the construction of new buildings. Some of those new buildings include the Newton County Library, the Judicial Center, the Turner Lake Recreation Complex, the Newton County Board of Education headquarters and the Newton County Detention Center.
The past 10 years also saw the addition of many educational facilities including a new middle school, two new high schools and the location of three centers of higher learning in the county: DeKalb Technical College, Troy University and Georgia Perimeter College.
Preferring to talk to people face to face, Ramsey never carried a cell phone the entire time he was mayor. Reminiscing with the council, Ramsey said that at one point City Manager Steve Horton actually brought a cell phone over to Ramsey Furniture Company for him to use. After several months Horton finally took it back when it was clear that Ramsey would not be using it.
Ramsey joked that in his entire time as mayor he only spent two hours in his official mayor's office at City Hall.
"They might as well had that office over there in Ramsey Furniture," Ramsey said.
From his base of operations at the store, located immediately off the square, Ramsey's tall loping figure walking across the street to BB&T Bank (formerly Main Street Bank) or next door to the historical Newton County Courthouse to talk business with County Chairman Aaron Varner is a common sight. Equally familiar is the sight of Ramsey's vehicle of choice, his white Ramsey Furniture truck parked at the YMCA on Thursday afternoons for a Kiwanis meeting or in the parking lot of Turner Lake Complex for community gatherings.
As mayor, Ramsey lead by example.
"His integrity is just impeccable," said former Covington city manager and childhood friend Frank Turner. "Everything he does is just to the highest standard. He was almost totally objective. To my knowledge he never called council members and tried to coerce them. He was meticulous with open records and open meetings."
The early days
Born in 1938, Ramsey is proud of the fact, which he frequently shares, that he is descended from the first European immigrants to settle Covington. A Boy Scout since a young age, Ramsey also took tap lessons which he has been known on occasion to display by donning an Uncle Sam costume and dancing before audiences to the sound of his wife Becky's organ playing.
Ramsey attended Covington City Schools and graduated from Newton High School in 1957. From a young age he demonstrated an interest in politics.
Turner, who was in the same grade as Ramsey and shared many classes with him, recalls being in the same eighth grade class for current events. While all of the other students fumbled to recall what they had heard on the radio that day or had heard mentioned at the dinner table, Ramsey was consistently the most prepared student in the class.
"Sam was always abreast of national politics and international politics, just head and shoulders above the rest of us," Turner said.
After graduating high school, Ramsey attended Oxford College for two years and then transferred to Emory University where he double-majored in business administration and economics. Upon graduation he entered the U.S. Air Force where he served from 1961-1964 in Michigan. While in the Air Force he won the Outstanding Supply Officer Award for Air Defense Command.
However, Ramsey's heart always belonged to Newton County. In 1964 he left the Air Force and returned to Covington to take over the family business. Many of Ramsey's memories are wrapped up in Ramsey Furniture where he first began working in elementary school.
In high school he opened up and ran Ramsey's Record Store from the furniture shop premises. One of only two record shops in town at the time, Ramsey says the business did so well that he was able to pay his way through college with the money he earned there.
In 1970 Ramsey married his wife Becky, who has been his biggest ally and staunchest supporter through 37 years of marriage.
"I couldn't have done any of this without Becky," Ramsey said.
The same year he married, Ramsey joined the Covington Planning Commission. Looking back on his 17 years on the commission, Ramsey said he is especially proud of the work the commission did in planning the perimeter access road around the city.
In 1987 when Rob Fowler resigned from the city council, Ramsey ran for and won Fowler's seat on the council. Ramsey points to the development of the Lochridge Industrial Park as one of his and the council's proudest economic achievements during that time.
In late 1997 after Covington Mayor Allene Burton resigned, both Ramsey and fellow Councilman Bobby Sigman announced their candidacy for mayor.
"A lot of people were just begging me to run," Ramsey said. "To tell the truth I felt like I couldn't say no. I felt like the city was at the point of needing some real leadership."
"I was determined I wasn't going to do anything but ask people to vote for me," Ramsey said. "I've always tried to treat everyone the same. I think some of the best friends I've got are in the black community. They realize I try to be fair."
"When people know you and have known you for years and years, what you do speaks so loudly that what others may say doesn't matter," said Rob Fowler of Ramsey's character.
After winning in 1997, Ramsey was twice more challenged by Sigman for the mayor's seat.
"Sam took the high road in absolutely every campaign," said his wife Becky.
As mayor, Ramsey worked to bring a sense of stability back to the city.
Noting Ramsey's strong religious convictions, Councilman Roger Tingler, also recently retired from the council, said, "He came at a time when we needed that in the city. He's very strong in his convictions. He doesn't allow politics to get in the way."
While Tingler said he occasionally disagreed with Ramsey on the council, he respected him for always having the city's best interests at heart. Tingler said he appreciated Ramsey's work to reforge a close working relationship with the county government.
"He's a firm believer that so goes the county so goes the city and vice versa," Tingler said. "He's strong on ethics which we all in politics ought to be. I'm not sure we have enough of that today."
County Chairman Aaron Varner said of Ramsey's retirement, "He's represented the city with extraordinary skill. My heart's a little sad that (working) relationship will no longer be there officially."
In the last year, Ramsey faced one of his stiffest challenges to date as mayor - getting approval for funding for a homeless shelter in the city.
While the city council narrowly approved $1.08 million for the shelter in September (Ramsey cast the tie-breaking vote), debate over the funding measure was wide-ranging with nearly everyone in the city having an opinion.
"If Sam wasn't determined, we wouldn't have a homeless shelter like we do because he took that on himself," Fowler said.
Added Councilwoman Janet Goodman, "His stance on the shelter never wavered and he knew it was a hot topic."
Earlier in the year, Ramsey presided over another controversial measure, the selling of Covington Cable to Charter Communications for $22 million.
"I think we made a great decision," Ramsey said. "Major cable TV stocks have dropped in price dramatically (since then). We took that money and paid off $5 million in debt. We would be losing money every year if we hadn't sold it."
This past year also saw some very proud moments for Ramsey and the city including the full accreditation of all four of the city's municipal departments and the city's nomination for an All-America City award.
Though he is stepping down, Ramsey still has a few ideas about what he thinks should happen in the city. An ardent supporter of the development of the Covington Municipal Airport, Ramsey said he believes the airport is the greatest economic development tool the city has.
In light of the recent defeat of the Newton County Home Builders Association's lawsuit against the county, Ramsey said he thinks the city should consider adopting the same impact fee ordinance as the council.
"I would recommend to the mayor and council to look at that again," Ramsey said. "It would be nice for the city and county to have the same thing."
Ramsey is quick to let people know that he isn't really retiring. He will continue to work at Ramsey Furniture where he has been president since 1964. He will also step into a new position as chairman of the Board of Trustees of Salem Camp Ground in addition to serving as chairman of the program committee for Salem Camp Ground.
In addition Ramsey says he will continue to serve on the Executive Board of the Atlanta Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America and will remain active in the First United Methodist Church of Covington. Ramsey said he is looking forward to traveling more around the country with his wife Becky when she performs organ concerts with her twin sister Alice.
"He's still going to be active, but I think he will miss not having his hands on the pulse," Tingler said.