This column usually deals with issues in higher education. This month, however, I want to pay tribute to a person who's spent most of her life in the community college system and who exemplifies its spirit. Community colleges were created to ensure all citizens had the opportunity to access a college education and reach their full potential. In Illinois Central College's brief history, Coach Lorene Ramsey stands out as a shining example of achieving this goal.
This May, ICC officially dedicated its gymnasium to Coach Ramsey. On this occasion, we talked to those she had coached and those who coached with her. By any athletic standards, Coach Ramsey had an amazing career. Tom Gilles, who pitched in the Philadelphia Phillies' system and was an assistant softball coach under Ramsey, noted that as a player, she had more than 400 wins and 3,800 strike-outs. Gilles said these are amazing statistics. While he acknowledged Ramsey's amazing athletic and coaching ability, he firmly believes Ramsey's greatest influence on his two daughters, Brenda and Tonya, was in engendering in them an appreciation for academics.
Indeed, if you talk to her former students, you'll find them speaking about the importance she placed on education. Born to what Lorene characterizes as "dirt poor" parents, her father asked her when she was in eighth grade if she wanted to go to college. She told her father, George, she would, but she didn't think they could afford it. Her father resolutely replied, "If your mother and I have to go hungry, you will go to college." At that moment, she understood the importance of higher education. That deep appreciation was passed on to hundreds of young women in central Illinois. Academics always came first in Lorene's playbook, and her athletes attest to that.
There's no doubt Coach Ramsey was a skilled and effective coach. Her collegiate record places her as one of the most winning-if not the most winning-coach in college history. She's been inducted into 12 halls of fame and has been tapped to coach all-star and Olympic-level teams, including the gold-medal winning 1979 Pan American Women's Softball Team. With a record like that, we suspect she could have coached anywhere. Yet she stayed at ICC and continued to mentor young women in central Illinois. Why would someone of such incredible talent do that?
We think it has to do with Coach Ramsey's values. If you ask her what she's proudest of, she won't say her winning record or her athletic accolades. She'll tell you she was able to help young women get their education by pushing for athletic scholarships at ICC and creating the kind of athletes Division I schools wanted. She'll talk about the millions of dollars her athletes earned in athletic scholarships after they left ICC for schools like Michigan State, Illinois, ISU, Iowa, Bradley, Florida State, Missouri, UCLA, and so on. Coach Ramsey probably could've coached where young athletes were tempted by the lure of professional sports contracts or even coached for professional teams. In fact, some of her players were courted by professional teams while they were at ICC, and Ramsey did coach a professional softball team.
But we think the reason she stayed so long at ICC was because coaching athletes at a two-year college almost forced them to continue their education. Ramsey effectively leveraged her students' love of athletics for a desire to play more. They got lots of playing time in her program, where she tempered their love for sports with academic strength. To keep playing, they had to have the grades to transfer to a four-year school.
When you think about it, it really is a perfect plan for young athletes: two years developing athletic zeal and academic prowess at ICC and then onto the university, where the end result is earning a bachelor's degree. Ramsey knew she could help students commit to academics by getting them to commit to athletics. And for that genius, we join former player Sandy Piccoli Griggs in saying, "It sounds corny, but she's unbelievable." Well done, Coach Ramsey, well done. IBI