Chapter 14 - Cindy Miller
His name stood out among the Ramey Estep board members on the website: Dr. Robert French, Director Emeritus 2006. Was this the Dr. French my cousin James talked about? His voice was edgy. I asked, "Do you know where the records for the Ramey Children's home are stored?" I asked.
"I don't know."
"How about photos of James Fannin, he has no records of his early life?"
"James is troubled over his life at the Ramey Home; he has attempted suicide and crippled his legs; his abuse from Minnie Suttles and James Stambaugh concern me."
"I'll call James and ask him to go on a hike with me," he offered.
"Well, that is probably not a good idea. You see he crippled his leg when he wanted to kill himself."
Dr. French lent several nice photos for copies. He generously taped duplicates of children's Christmas and Easter programs at the Home. The singing voices ringing over the decades were joyful and clear.
He offered to show his home movies of the Ramey Home children taken over several decades. I roasted a chicken, with condiments and with a bottle of sherry; drove across Lexington to his home. He brought out paper plates. I laughed and fished out plates from his cupboard to heat up. I've been 'over-trained' in a cordon bleu culinary class," I smiled. Our laughter broke the tension somewhat.
"My story recounts the lives of my Fannin cousins," I said. "Wouldn't it be great for another writer to capture the spirit and work of Gertrude Ramey? Such as yourself?"
Dr. French admitted he wanted to write the story. He mailed a copy of his first chapter set during WWII. He had disguised the names, but I recognized Violet Stevens, Peggie Burke and Anna Sue Sperry.
A few weeks later, he invited me to Berea College for an A Capella 18th century musical. His beautiful baritone resonated above the other voices at times. In July, he invited me to attend the Ramey Home Reunion at Armco Park in Ashland. After the picnic, even though I had toured the campus with James, Mary Lou and with Martha Lillian Fannin, I joined the walk through with the former residents and their families; where I heard more than I'd expected.
Cindy Miller is an attractive and tall, robust woman with engaging blue eyes and a broad smile. She lagged back to walk near the end of the line with me. "My sisters Mary, Susie and I grew up here, and our little brother Charles."
"I know James Fannin," she said, inviting me to talk to her. We sauntered along, when she pointed to a large woman at the head of the line, and whispered, "See that woman, she raped me when I little." I froze.
By the time we reached the third floor, Cindy was no longer beside me, but Bonnie Ramey had replaced her. She said, "You know, Cindy Miller is troubled, I hope you are aware that she is unstable and what she says is unreliable? She is on medication for a mental disorder." I fiddled with my camera.
When I looked up, Cindy was at my side and Bonnie was gone. We reached the upstairs bathroom, "This is where she did it the first time," Cindy whispered. "She locked the door and raped me."
I found my voice, "One time?"
"No, she arranged to sleep with me at night, and she never let me alone. She was a lot bigger than me. I think she hurt my little sister, Mary too," Cindy offered.
"See that woman there? That is Bettye Jane Sullivan; she hit me every day. Well, let's say she beat me every day." I followed her gaze to a woman whose hair was cropped close. She wore glasses with large, thick lens. Dressed neatly in white short style pants, and tennis shoes, she wore no makeup. As we inched along, Bettye Jane kept close to the Ramey twins in the small crowd. She glanced at me, and I smiled back as Cindy whispered, "When I wet the bed, she made me wear my wet underpants on my head and sit in the corner."
The tour resembled an operetta with players whispering in my ear, only to be replaced with another person who asserted the opposite was true. How did they know?
The paradox was the story of Bettye Jane Sullivan who was herself a foundling; had grown up in Gertrude's care, but never left the Ramey Home. She stayed to work with the children at the Home, and to make her home there. At one time, she studied nursing at the vocational school. BJ was her name of choice. Why hadn't she left? I wondered. The truth of her early life was distorted by many different stories. From what I already knew, it was more likely her mother lived in Avondale, not on a houseboat.
"I saw BJ beat your cousin Hallie Ann Fannin. She hit her fifteen times. I counted. She pulled her hair," Cindy whispered. "And, she whipped me every day, sometimes with coat hangers." I felt intense. This was not what I'd expected.
When I looked up from refilling my camera, at my elbow BJ whispered, "I think my family name was Terry, and I was about eighteen months old when they brought me here."
Dr. French witnessed this Wagnerian Operatic scene as Cindy, Bettye Jane and others spoke to me. In the stairwell on the third floor, he drew me away to a corner and spoke in a low tone. "No need to discuss these kinds of things; just let the sleeping dogs lie."
"How did BJ come to live here all her life?"
"She came as a toddler; malnourished and Gertrude said she was found on a river boat living with drunken adults. Little is known about her past. His voice grew deeper and low, "You realize her mind is not just right."
Overlying this particular scene and this tour, the twin Ramey girls who grew up in the Ramey Home from five months to eighteen years, had returned to Ashland, Kentucky from their home in Houston to host this Reunion. They organized their former child housemates, issued the invitations and acted as ambassadors. Also, they had a larger mission. They wanted to reclaim the 1910 red brick on McCullough Drive with 21st century plans to restore it and to counsel former Ramey Children who still needed help. Dr. French, not in agreement with their plans, said, "This is just a building."
Dr French was protective of the image of Gertrude Ramey, but did he view me as a threat to her reputation? I wondered, with all the children Miss Ramey had saved and nurtured, how could an interview with BJ Sullivan or Cindy Miller harm her or that legend? Can the truth harm Miss Ramey?
Dr. Robert French said, "When I heard about Gertrude Ramey and her work, I made it my mission to serve her. I drove from his physician's practice in Lexington to see Gertrude Ramey in Ashland each month. I ran errands and advised her when she needed me. I developed the history of the Home; I took pictures. I was an unofficial historian for the Home."
Bettye Jane Sullivan, James and other children who lived at the Ramey Home, had a different view, "Dr. French saw only the best behavior on the part of staff, and of Miss Ramey. It was called the 'Bow' times, because before each weekend, we children were dressed in Sunday clothes for church. We wore these fancy clothes and were told to say nothing about life at the Ramey Home."
During his weekend visits to see Miss Ramey, he photographed the children, supervised work projects, cut the lawn, trained them to sing in the holiday pageants and served as her spokesman when the Press came to boost her fund raising. By his testimony, his mission served Gertrude Ramey.
Now, in 2005, Dr. Robert French, Director Emeritus was displayed on the Ramey-Estep website with the 21st century board members.
Were his memories, photographs and recordings of Gertrude Ramey's life her only reliable legacy? And what of the memories of the thousands of children who came to her door? Was Dr. French's weekending snapshots their only documentation? The Children's personal records were missing. Did he also have her missing records for the children from all three Ramey Homes? Connie and Bonnie Ramey said, "Yes, he told us he has them."