James Walter Ramsay: Soldier. Bureaucrat. Theme park creator. Partisan. Born July 21, 1931, in Victoria; died Nov. 30, 2022, in Toronto; of Alzheimer’s; aged 91.
The first time I met my brother I was 12.
One Sunday he came to my boarding school in Port Hope and drove me in his impossibly luxurious car to Toronto where we had roast beef lunch at the impossibly luxurious King Edward Hotel, then drove me back to tiny cloistered Port Hope.
I was his half-brother. We shared a father but had different mothers. He’d left home by the time I was born. In fact, he left our house in Edmonton at the age of 17, one year before he was legally allowed to fight in the Korean War.
Jim can be summed up in a single word: He was a warrior. He viewed life as a battle between those who agreed with him and those who didn’t. You knew exactly where he stood on everything, always – from the rise of left-wing values to the fall of the work ethic. Trying to change his mind was futile, of course, which is why I tended to limit our interactions to two or three times a year over lunch. We didn’t have conversations, really. He would bark at me (his usual speaking mode) and make pronouncements and I would say “Right” or “Really?” I’m sure he was like this with everyone. He was clear, he was constant and you’d better get out of his way.
But for all of his clarity, he was also a mythological creature. When he was studying economics at New York University he was one of Robert Moses’s drivers. Mr. Moses, the man who covered New York with highways, didn’t have a driver’s license. Jim must have heard a lot in that car that served him well when the time came to plan the Ontario Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and four years later, Ontario Place.
These were the two great jewels of his ambition and life. I marvel at how many competing wills he had to bend his way to get these marvelous theme parks built. I often wondered how such a man could have helped bring the lyric “Ontari-ari-ario” into the provincial psyche or build places that were so uplifting, optimistic and fun. But he did, inspiring an enduring loyalty among the hundreds of hosts at Expo 67 and Ontario Place who signed on to follow Jim.
In fact, the Expo 67 gang hosted him at their 50th reunion in 2017 just as Alzheimer’s was changing him. So he fit neatly into that universal archetype: the tough guy with a heart of gold.
In his family life, he was a fierce protector of his brood: his wife, Bridie (who died in 2020 after their 57 years of marriage), his son Allan and daughter Siobhan. When his grandkids Connor and Caelan arrived 19 and 16 years ago, his gruff exterior melted and he became a puddle, as so many grandparents do in the presence of their progeny.
Jim was old-fashioned that way, too, dividing his life into two parts, work and family. I can’t recall a single time when one crossed over into the other, except perhaps when his family stood by his side when he greeted Queen Elizabeth with Premier John Robarts at the opening of Ontario Place in 1971.
Jim lived many full and big years. His final ones were no fun at all.
He was moved to the Sunnybrook Veteran’s Wing dementia unit one day before the COVID-19 lockdowns in March, 2020. In his early time there, Siobhan and Allan and I would do Facetime calls with him. But they got shorter and shorter until they stopped altogether.
Dementia took away his powers, his senses, and finally his life. Near the end he couldn’t talk or eat. He didn’t linger.
Because as a warrior, he knew when to retreat.
Bob Ramsay is Jim’s brother.
To submit a Lives Lived: email@example.com
Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide