3 Inspired People

Story Carmen K. Sisson | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Richard Ramsey, West Point
It would have been hard to forget a man who was 6 feet 6 inches tall and nearly 300 pounds.

It would have been hard to forget a bluesman who could rattle windows, raise the roof, bring people to their feet, scare the living daylights out of them and make them scream for more.

But lest Mississippi forget its native son, lest the world forget to give the Wolf his due, there is Richard Ramsey, founder of the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum in West Point.

This is not just some über-fan who has created the über-tourist attraction. Ramsey’s commitment extends deeper, preserving a chapter of American history while boosting tourism.

As a child growing up in White Station, a rural settlement north of West Point, Howlin’ Wolf sat beside the railroad tracks at night, watching sparks fly from the trains’ smokestacks, dreaming of a time when he would be free of his cruel uncle. At 13, he ran away, and at 46, he recorded his hit song, “Smokestack Lightnin’.”

When Ramsey saw a chunk of discarded railroad track near Wolf’s childhood home, he understood how those nights shaped the boy and the musician he would someday become.

So he carried the heavy iron more than a mile to include it in the museum, which opened in 2005. He was instrumental in bringing a Mississippi Blues Trail marker to West Point, along with a statue. The annual Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival also keeps the legacy alive.

“Wolf is the only person from West Point in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Ramsey explains. “He’s the only person from West Point with a U.S. postage stamp in his honor. The only one from West Point to influence Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great honor for me to work on this project to preserve his legacy for the world to see and understand.”

Alma Turner, Columbus
Alma Turner kneels in front of the bookcase like a supplicant at the altar of the holy. Above, dignified tomes line the shelves, but these aren’t what she seeks.

She opens a cabinet and rummages around, emerging with a stash of mostly non-fiction, literary favorites. They whisper the secrets which made Turner one of the most beloved educators in Columbus: self awareness and self-mastery, grounded by deep, abiding faith, lead to inner strength and spiritual enlightenment, and upon that bedrock, altruism, compassion and empathy enable one to touch lives and improve the world.

  There was no other path she could have taken; she was destined to be a teacher.

Over the past 40 years, her influence has stretched beyond the classroom to multiple roles in education, from principal, assistant superintendent and mentor to board member for a dizzying array of organizations.

When diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2011, she stepped from the public eye, but the teaching didn’t stop. She set aside her own pain, sickness and fear to counsel and console others. 

These days, she’s sporting a chic haircut and a big smile. She’s feeling better. Her calendar can barely contain her commitments. Former students invite her to their graduations from Ivy League schools. They are doctors, lawyers, artists, change agents.

Pride fills Turner’s eyes as she remembers students she thought she would lose. She listened to them. Encouraged them. Fostered talents. Praised accomplishments.

Most of all, she never, ever gave up. She loved them fiercely, and they loved her.

A hall closet is filled with awards, and more are stuffed beneath her bed, but the greatest testimonies to her impact are scattered across the nation.

“I’ve got children everywhere,” she says. “They come back and say thank you for things I didn’t even consider to be important, but they remembered. I’m just so humbled.”

Armando & Ruth de la Cruz, Starkville
Sometimes the best way to show gratitude is to pay it forward, creating a generosity of spirit that transcends time, place and cultural boundaries.

Dr. Armando and Ruth de la Cruz could not have known they would meet on a ship sailing back to their homeland, the Philippines. They could not have known they would fall in love, marry, move to Starkville, and teach an American tradition to hundreds of international students.

In 1984, they simply wanted to repay those who had made them feel welcome. What began as a small holiday gathering of 15 people multiplied.

Now, they are looking forward to their 27th year of hosting Thanksgiving dinner for nearly 300 international students and their families.

Decades ago, when they were students at American University in Washington, D.C., dormitories closed on holidays, leaving those far from their families with nowhere to go. Although that practice has changed for the most part, the longing for fellowship and community has not.

The night before Thanksgiving, Armando de la Cruz heads to First United Methodist Church in Starkville, where he shoves turkeys into the oven, two at a time. By 7 a.m., six to eight turkeys are ready to be carved.

Some students take the tradition back to their countries. One couple met at the second Thanksgiving dinner and are now celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

The de la Cruzes started Starkville’s International Fiesta and the World Neighbors Association, which promotes social interaction between the community and international students.

They taught students how to bank, grocery shop and obtain drivers’ licenses. They worked to close cultural gaps and foster friendships.

“Mississippi is known for its hospitality,” Ruth says. “Let’s be hospitable. Be open-minded. It’s not like what we hear on the news. There are so many good stories.”