Ralph El-Ramey was in his first term as mayor when I moved to Wilson in 1980. For the next decade, through mayoral elections, electoral changes, big challenges and major initiatives, he remained both presiding mayor and affable good ol' boy. Ralph died Sunday.
It was easy to see how he was elected mayor. He never met a stranger and knew everyone in Wilson, it seemed. He was a friend and a persuader, a story teller and a joker. He always seemed to be having fun, even in the most serious moments.
He managed all of this, despite the fact he was not one of the eastern North Carolina elite, the heirs of plantation owners and industrial titans. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants who never forgot his roots. He had worked as a theater manager in Wilson and other eastern North Carolina towns — an essential, popular but not prestigious job. He told me of his experiences running a theater in Wadesboro, near where I grew up, and he could still recall the names of the major families there. By the time he entered local politics, he was selling insurance, a job with flexible hours that were ideal for a city office holder.
His Middle Eastern name presented some problems. Many constituents thought he was "Ralph L. Ramey" and referred to him as "Mayor Ramey." I jokingly called him "Ralphael Ramey." He never allowed name mistakes to bother him.
Into his second decade in the mayor's chair, Ralph ran afoul of a determined group of progressive civic activists who viewed the mayor as someone too simple to appreciate the finer things in life. He had opposed the city's purchase of an old downtown theater whose showing of X-rated fare had become a civic embarrassment. The sale went through over his objections and at a price he thought too high, and the old theater eventually became the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. He also didn't like a plan to turn the city-owned former BB&T headquarters into the Wilson Arts Center.
The folks who didn't like Ralph's lack of appreciation of the arts (as they saw it), backed a candidate to unseat him, a genial, well-educated man who appreciated the arts. Ralph survived the challenge and kept his seat, but the animosity remained. Privately, the mayor would disparage the artsy crowd as much as they disparaged him.
Ralph finally lost his seat in the early 1990s, and the loss clearly pained him, but it didn't take him long to put that behind him and return to his jovial, optimistic views of life. I saw him less frequently in recent years, but he was always friendly and outwardly happy.
Regardless of how anyone felt about his support of the arts or any other city issue, Ralph El-Ramey was a good guy, a friend to all, a testament to immigrant ambition and success, and a character like no other.