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Page 15
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Fallen Comrades: Shelly Ramsdell

By Mary Ann Swissler

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Sheldon (Shelly) Ramsdell

August 31, 1935 - March 25, 1996

(Bay Area Reporter,April 4, 1996)

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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