Alan Ramsden, who spent 24 years working in local radio and 56 years on the Nelson museum board, has died at 95.
Ramsden was frequently called upon by local historians for his exceptional memory and extensive knowledge of Nelson’s past — much of which he experienced firsthand.
Aside from a few years in Trail, he spent his entire life in Nelson. When not behind a microphone, he could be found volunteering for a myriad of organizations or perusing ancient newspapers in the archives.
Ramsden was born in Nelson on April 14, 1926 to Wilhelm and Rose (nee O’Malley) Ramsden, whose families both came to the area in the early 20th century.
He grew up at 502 Houston St. and attended Central, Trafalgar, and Nelson high school. His father died when he was 10, leaving him to help raise his younger brother Bill and sister Rose.
He belonged to the boy scouts and air cadets, but first came to public attention at age 14 due to his aptitude for science. During the Second World War, he designed a heat-seeking bomb and submitted the idea to the Department of National Defence.
“I just sorta had an idea and my teacher thought it was a pretty good one, so we worked it out and sent it to Ottawa,” he explained to the Vancouver Province in 1940.
But Ramsden’s mother was horrified to receive an envelope from the government with her son’s name on it. “I nearly had a heart attack,” she told him. “I thought they were going to call you up.”
In fact, the letter thanked him for his idea and said they would be in touch. A month later, someone knocked on the family’s door and asked to speak to the young inventor.
“He was from Ottawa,” Ramsden recalled in 2017. “He said ‘I came all the way out here to talk to you about this. I do hope you won’t tell or show anybody what you’ve done.’ … So that was my war effort.”
It turned out the U.S. military was already working on a bomb similar to Ramsden’s design.
Although his father ran a music store, Ramsden considered himself “musically inept.” It was the radios, which the store also carried, that fascinated him.
“People today have come to accept radio,” he said in an interview in the 1983 book Imagine Please. “In those days, I think, everybody thought that the little black box was somehow magic.”
His interest was further piqued at the age of eight when his father took him on a trip to Vancouver, where he watched Earle Kelly (alias Mr. Good-Evening) deliver the nightly news on CKWX, reading from a seemingly endless roll of paper.
“When you were a guest at one of those performances, he always mentioned who he had in the studio with him,” Ramsden said. “I also received all the clippings of the news for that broadcast.”
His own entry into radio came during his last year of high school in 1944, when he was paged to principal L.V. Rogers’ office and informed the local Catholic bishop was impressed with his diction in church and wanted him to narrate a religious program on local station CKLN.
Ramsden was introduced to the station’s receptionist who doubled as an announcer. She taught him how to use the equipment — and then went home, leaving him in charge.
Thereafter, Ramsden worked evenings and weekends at the station and handled remote broadcasts of Catholic mass. His mother would put his dinner on the streetcar and he would race to pick it up between station breaks.
When Nelson’s Midsummer Bonspiel began, prominent CBC broadcaster Bill Good Sr. came to Nelson and Ramsden was tapped to introduce him each night. He thought it would be an interesting assignment until he received the script that just said: “Here’s Bill Good with the western sports news.”
Ramsden was also thrown on the air to broadcast curling draws, despite zero knowledge of the sport. “The first thing I found out was that I didn’t know how to read the scoreboard. I’m sure there were some vivid and marvellous phone calls going to the station.”
Ramsden left in 1947 to join CJAT in Trail, but returned three years later to become CKLN’s manager and remained there until 1968, shortly after the station was sold.
In 1952, he interviewed Louis Armstrong when the jazz great came to Nelson for a hastily arranged concert, which Ramsden also recorded.
“I had to go talk to Louis, who was staying at the Hume Hotel and make the arrangements. We set it up and I recorded the whole performance. When it was over, he said, ‘Could you bring it to the hotel?’ We lugged this great big old tape recorder up to his hotel room and he listened to a little bit of it and said, ‘Oh, that’s great. Just give me the tapes. They belong to me.’”
Ramsden felt he had no choice but to comply.
As a communications specialist, a spot was reserved for Ramsden in the bunker built beneath the post office in the 1960s to shelter officials in the event of a nuclear catastrophe or other disaster. But he was instructed not to tell anyone. A federal official met with him to vet the list of others proposed for inclusion.
“I didn’t like the idea that anybody would know I had anything to do with it,” Ramsden recalled in a video produced by Touchstones Nelson when the bunker was turned into an exhibit space. “The guy assured me no one will ever hear. Nobody will get in there who doesn’t meet the requirements.”
Following his radio career, Ramsden became the city’s recreation superintendent and retired from the Liquor Control Board. In his spare time, he volunteered with numerous groups, including the boy scouts, arts council, Kootenay School of the Arts, recreation commission, chamber of commerce, and civil defence.
But his greatest legacy was helping establish the Nelson Museum and serving on its board for more than half a century. Ramsden was a founding member of the society in 1955 and his tenure spanned four moves and three locations, from the old post office to a former Lake Street brothel, to a purpose-built facility on Anderson Street, and finally back to the former post office, now Touchstones.
He also donated many artifacts from his family collection and helped secure what he regarded as the museum’s most significant item: the Ladybird, a champion speedboat built in Nelson in 1920.
Ramsden retired from the board in 2011 only because of new term limits imposed on directors.
His volunteer work earned him Citizen of the Year honours in 2002.
Ramsden died at home with family present Dec. 11. He was predeceased by wife Evelyn in 2017, whom he married in 1949, and daughter Cheryl. Survivors include brother Bill, who served as mayor of Nelson in the 1990s; children Martin, Eric, Janice, and Douglas; and three grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held in the spring.
Ramsden is the latest of several prominent Nelsonites who have died in the last few months, including Shawn Lamb, whom he recruited to work at the Nelson Museum; George Coletti, with whom he served on a family history panel in 2017; longtime aquatic centre manager Wilma Turner; and librarian/historian Ron Welwood.