Sheldon Herman Ramsdell (1935 - 1996)


Sheldon Herman Ramsdell Biography & Family History

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I met Sheldon "Shelly" Herman Ramsdell and his closest friend and political activist John Belskus in early 1989 when they came together and visited me at my apartment in San Francisco during a hunger strike I was on for state and federal laws protecting gays and those with HIV from discrimination. I moved back to Salt Lake City after my hunger strike in July 1989. John Belskus died the following year in 1990, but I remained friends with Sheldon until he died and visited him several times on trips to San Francisco, including one where he was in the hospital. I gave him a "Popeye" doll I bought at the hospital gift shop because it reminded me of him, even looked like him, and it was our personal joke that I would call him "Popeye" afterward. He was a great & valiant person, but much of what he did was unknown to me until after he died. This included the extent of his involvement in the VVAW; he co-founded that organization and worked closely with, among others, now US State Department Secretary and former US Senator John Kerry. I know he was photographer in the Vietnam War before co-founding VVAW, I assume with the US Army. And his later activism for gay people and those with HIV & AIDS, even when diagnosed with AIDS himself, was awe inspiring.

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Sheldon Ramsdell was born on in Wells Town, York County, Maine


Mother: Velma Louise (Traves) Ramsdell


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photojournalist, publicist & political activist who co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1960s


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Sheldon Ramsdell died on in San Francisco, San Francisco County, California United States

Cause of death: AIDS

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San Francisco, San Francisco County, California

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1935 - In the year that Sheldon Herman Ramsdell was born, on September 8th, Louisiana Senator Huey Long was shot by Dr. Carl Weiss. Weiss was shot and killed immediately by Long's bodyguards - Long died two days later from his injuries. Long had received many death threats previously, as well as threats against his family. He was a powerful and controversial figure in Louisiana politics (and probably gained power through multiple criminal acts). His opponents became frustrated with their attempts to oust him and Dr. Weiss was the son-in-law of one of those opponents. His funeral was attended by 200,000 mourners.

1974 - At the age of 39 years old, Sheldon was alive when on August 9th, Gerald R. Ford became the 38th President of the United States. He had been Vice President for 8 months when he became President due to the resignation of President Nixon.

1986 - Sheldon was 51 years old when on January 28th, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. All seven crew members died. The cause of the explosion was later found to be a failed O-ring. The O-ring failure was due to the unusually cold conditions at Cape Canaveral.

1990 - By the time he was 55 years old, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the movement to end South African apartheid was released on February 11th 1990.

1996 - In the year of Sheldon Herman Ramsdell's passing, on April 3rd, Theodore Kaczynski (nicknamed the Unabomber) was arrested. His mailed or hand-delivered bombs, sent between 1978 and 1995, killed three people and injured 23 others. Diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Kaczynski is serving 8 life sentences without the possibility of parole.

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Sheldon Ramsdell Obituary

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Fallen Comrades: Shelly Ramsdell

Sheldon (Shelly) Ramsdell
August 31, 1935 - March 25, 1996
Bay Area Reporter,April 4, 1996

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By Mary Ann Swissler

Photojournalist and political activist Sheldon Ramsdell died at his home on Monday, March 25th after a lengthy battle with AIDS. He was 60.

After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1958, Shelly Ramsdell dedicated much of the rest of his life to his twin loves, photography and politics. An inveterate letter writer who expressed his opinion on issues ranging from Gay/Lesbian rights to NAFTA, Shelly Ramsdell always backed up his rhetoric with active participation.

In 1967, he co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), the influential group that went on to galvanize our seriously flagging antiwar movement. In 1971, VVAW staged a highly publicized one week encampment on the Washington Mall. It was during this series of actions, dubbed Operation Dewey Canyon III, that the assembled vets tossed their medals over the fence onto the Capitol steps in one of the most visibly dramatic moments of our domestic struggle to end the war in Vietnam. Shelly Ramsdell was there with his camera. He was VVAW's press aide until 1974.

During this period, he was also the chief press aide for U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign, an aide for New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and a photographer for Norman Mailer's unsuccessful 1969 bid to become Mayor of New York.

After moving to San Francisco in 1984, he was active in local political groups, particularly focusing on issues affecting people with AIDS. In 1990, he was a delegate to the Sixth International Conference on AIDS, and was part of the San Francisco ACT-UP contingent sent to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1992. While at the Republican Convention in Houston, he donned his sports coat and crashed several private Republican Party events to talk to his old media cronies and lobby Republicans on behalf of PWAs.

Col. Cliff Anchor, Commander of the Alexander Hamilton Post of the American Legion, credits Shelly Ramsdell with having decorated J. Edgar Hoover's grave with pink triangles and lingerie during the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian/Gay Rights.

A self-taught photographer, his photographic interests ranged from the political arena to Broadway and beyond. He took Barbra Streisand's first publicity photos, photographed Helena Rubenstein, Joel Gray (in Cabaret makeup), Abbie Hoffman, Broadway producer Fred Ebb (Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman), Bette Midler and William S. Burroughs, among many others. His photographs have been exhibited at the New York Public Theater and on NBC TV's Today Show. They were published in the New York Times, Esquire, Time, Playboy, Chicago Tribune, Interior Design, Key West Arts Review, AP, and UPI. Friends will be arranging a posthumous show of his photos, including his photos of J. Edgar Hoover's "decorated" gravesite.

He is survived by his parents, Herman and Louise Ramsdell of Olgonquit, Maine; a sister, Shirley Suglia, of Shelton, Connecticut; brothers Donald Ramsdell of Naples, Florida and Glenn Ramsdell of Wells, Maine; nieces, nephews, and legions of friends.

Tax-deductible contributions may be made in Shelly's name to The Restitution Project, 584 Castro Street #514, San Francisco CA 94114, a new organization dedicated to acknowledging the contribution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender veterans and service members.

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