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A Traveling Tribute

Established in honor of a beloved UA professor, the prestigious John Fraser Ramsey Award gives top students a unique chance to traverse the continent where Western civilization took root.

By Lisa Frederick

According to late UA history professor John Ramsey— one of the most legendary, admired figures ever to teach at the University—the best way to appreciate the Old World foundation of our culture was to see its birthplace firsthand. Known for his boundless generosity and love of helping others, Dr. Ramsey served as a mentor to several generations of students during his 42 years on campus, which included advising (and even, in some cases, financing) overseas trips so students could view for themselves the places they’d discussed in his classes. And today, the University’s John Fraser Ramsey Award preserves that legacy for a handful of outstanding undergraduates.

One of five annual Premier Awards, the highest honors given by UA, the Ramsey Award recognizes a junior who exemplifies versatility of gifts and attainments as well as excellence in mind and character. In addition to the winners receiving a substantial financial stipend, what makes the award unique is the offer of a summer-long sojourn in Europe, with an open-ended itinerary of their choosing. Dubbed the Great Ideas Tour (GIT) in honor of Dr. Ramsey’s signature course, “Great Ideas of Western Civilization,” the trip allows participants to explore the breeding ground of much of the world’s great art, culture and history. Honorees are given round-trip airfare, a Eurail pass and a barrage of support and advice from the Ramsey Family—the collective name for award recipients, former students, longtime friends and others dedicated to upholding the professor’s ideals.

“It all starts with the Ramsey Family, a collection of people you won’t find the equal of anywhere else,” says Alex Flachsbart, the 2008 award recipient. “Their collective experience is your reference point. From the beginning, you get all these emails from past participants.” Each student constructs his or her itinerary based on personal interests, course of study and more, and GIT alumni offer suggestions born of hindsight, from tourist traps best avoided to obscure restaurants worth seeking out.

For many recipients, the pinnacle of their journey abroad is a stay at the Vienna home of John Harris, a UA alumnus, Ramsey Award trustee and co-creator of the GIT. Dr. Ramsey worked closely with the young Harris to plan his first trip to Europe in 1973, and the two remained lifelong friends. In establishing the GIT, Harris wanted to pass that spirit of generosity along. “He symbolizes what the Ramsey Family is all about,” Flachsbart says. Genial and hospitable, with a wide network of friends and colleagues within Europe, Harris is known for his enthusiasm in helping students make their GIT experiences as rich and productive as possible.

From the outset, Harris and the other GIT founder, Jim Caldwell, recommended that participants travel solo, which they felt would encourage them to connect with new acquaintances rather than rely on familiar travel companions. In some ways, the solitude can feel isolating. But GIT tourees say that it profoundly changes the filter through which they experience other countries and cultures.

“Two or three months of silence is an awfully long time, and you can only have so many meals alone,” says Andy Todd, another past Ramsey Award honoree. “Eventually you force yourself to get out there and talk to people. That’s when you start having the real million-dollar memories, I think. It’s much harder to do that with a partner or in a group—not only are you less likely to feel pushed to make experiences happen, but you also make yourself slightly less accessible to others.”

Flachsbart, who made a point of immersing himself in the local scene of every city on his itinerary, says his favorite experiences sprang from the friends he made as a result. On the Croatian island of Hvar, for example, his host threw a spur-of-the-moment dinner party for him, with a massive spread of wood-grilled meats, salads, olives and wine from his own vineyard. Similarly, Todd’s best memories came through chance encounters and new friends: a sightseeing drive through rural Provence with an enthusiastic native; cheering for Germany while watching the World Cup final with a group in Berlin; an impromptu pub crawl in Munich with a Hungarian man he’d just met on the subway.

Attuned to the rhythms of local life, both Todd and Flachsbart say they felt an unusual sense of connection to many of the places they visited. “You stop being a tourist and start to see things not quite as a resident, but through a different pair of eyes,” Flachsbart says. Adds Todd: “When we think of the ‘touristy Europe’ of cafes, art museums and tinkling fountains, it’s easy to forget that it’s a functioning place with its share of headaches, commuter hassles, family dramas and social problems.”

For Todd, in fact, those details figure into daily life, as Europe is now his permanent home. The year after his GIT, he returned to travel the British Isles with his brothers, then taught English for a time in French schools. Still searching for a career path—“I wasn’t ready to just go home, and wasn’t sure what I would do if I did,” he says—he enrolled in graduate school in the United Kingdom, which led to a series of jobs in Asia, the former Soviet Union and, ultimately, London.

“The Great Ideas Tour gave me an idea of how accessible Europe is and began a series of travel and work experiences that made the notion of sticking around less preposterous,” Todd says. “Europe no longer [seemed] ‘way over there,’ prohibitively expensive to get to and full of nice old buildings, interesting history and smartly dressed people.”

No doubt Dr. Ramsey would consider it a mission accomplished.

For more about the John Fraser Ramsey Award and the Great Ideas Tour, visit http://bama.ua.edu/~jfraward.