Dr. Maxine Ramey, professor emerita and former director of the School of Music at the University of Montana, calls her life “The Great American Story.”
She and her twin brother Robert were the first in their family to ever go to college. Back into the 1800s, their kin had known only poverty.
Her great-grandfather, Jack Rutledge, moved west from Tennessee in search of a better life.
Her grandfather, Robert “R.A.” Rutledge, was so poor with children to support, that he was not drafted in World War I. Ironically, though, it could be said he ended up a casualty of the war. Troop trains bringing soldiers back from Europe also brought the Spanish flu. R.A. Rutledge contracted the disease, dying in December 1918.
His son (Ramey’s father) was only 2 years old at the time, and would face enormous challenges in life.
“Dad (Robert Ben ‘R.B.’ Rutledge) had polio and couldn’t walk until the age of 9,” recalls Ramey. So he was considerably older than other first-graders when he began attending school. “He was only able to make it through fourth grade, (because) as a 13-year-old (he was expected) to go to work on the tenant cotton farm.”
Surviving the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Ramey’s dad served during World War II “as an unarmed guard for German prisoners in the apple fields of Maryland. The prisoners were 14- to 16-year-old boys (who) called him ‘Papa.’ ”
In the post-war years, “R.B.” moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he met his future wife, Irene Baldwin. In 1957, Irene gave birth to the twins, Maxine and Robert Michael. “R.B.” later told Maxine, “The No. 1 thing I wanted was to be sure my kids went to college.”
So “he moved to a house two miles from Arizona State University in 1961. He wanted to be sure we could live at home, walk to school (elementary through college).”
Twin brother Robert Michael went on to become an engineer for the Phoenix power company, Salt River Project.
Maxine became “an internationally known clarinet performer (with) a passion for music history and the great musical masters – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms,” according to Smithsonian Journeys.”
But it wasn’t easy. The family couldn’t afford to pay for college, so “that was on us,” said Ramey. “We had to work and get scholarships.
“You asked about the cost of college, now and then,” said Ramey in an e-mail after our interview. “Wow! That is a topic that needs to be talked about. In 1975, when I started at ASU, tuition was $258 per semester. With scholarships, and living at home, I left with zero undergraduate college debt and a great education.
“I think that is why I always recommended to kids in Missoula to attend UM for their undergraduate degree. Live at home. Walk out of UM with a great education (and) zero student loans. Then go on to other things.
“So many kids go out of state and end up with a comparable education, (but) a six figure loan! It really is outrageous. Very short sighted.
“In 1979, when I decided to go to Michigan State for my MM degree, the cost of out-of-state, plus room and board, was astronomical – $15,000 per year!”
When it came to the doctorate degree, though, “student loans were the only way to go, even though I had scholarships and a teaching assistantship. My last semester, I paid $1200 per credit X 75 credits. You do the math. You can see how having a six-figure student loan debt is VERY common for many.”
Ramey’s proud of what she’s accomplished in life: “The first generation that actually has made it to a place to where I’m college educated, I had a career and a home.”
But if it weren’t for her family and their collective dreams, a college education may never have happened. “It was like 100 years to get to that point – something that started in 1918, a really hopeful time in the U.S.
“I think there were a lot of farmers and homesteaders that went west, looking for that American dream (only to face the) Depression and then the Dust Bowl and then World War II and, you know, it just kind of pushed my family to the levels of outright poverty – not being able to get a toehold to actually get that American dream.”
But her father’s goal for his children to finish college was pivotal.
“There was no greater thing he could have done with his life (than) to make sure that we had an education; even to finish high school was a huge thing for him.
“I mean, every graduation from middle school to high school to university – he was there with flags and banners and crying, and I mean it was really something. He was realizing a dream that he’d never had (but) wanted for his children for sure.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.