Obituary: J. Roland E. Ramirez / Philosophy professor at Duquesne University

Died April 16, 2014

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For the first three decades of his life, he could hardly stay in one place.

Born in Los Angeles, J. Roland E. Ramirez, the son of a Guatemalan diplomat, spent his childhood in Guatemala and Louisiana before joining the U.S. Navy and serving as a radar operator on a PBY Catalina seaplane in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, Mr. Ramirez, who died Wednesday at 89, got a degree from the University of Notre Dame and traveled the world, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa, before settling down to teach philosophy at Duquesne University, a post he held for 50 years.

"He had an incredible curiosity about people and places," said his wife, Constance Ramirez, who met her husband in the late 1950s on Duquesne's campus, where she was also a faculty member. "Maybe there's a restlessness that's instilled in people as a result of that early history."

Mr. Ramirez's early travels, after earning his undergraduate degree, took him to France, where he earned two degrees, including a doctorate, with a few years of traveling in between.

Mr. Ramirez hitchhiked from Paris all the way to the Middle East, visiting Greece, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran before making his way to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

"That would be impossible today, I'm sure," Mrs. Ramirez said. "[Hitchhiking] was unknown in some of the places he traveled to."

To earn enough money to make it back to Paris, he taught English for months at a school in Mosul, Iraq, and after finishing his doctorate he briefly worked as a tutor for a family in Philippeville, Algeria, (now Skikda) where he witnessed the beginning of the brutal French-Algerian War.

In 1956, he returned to the United States and a job at Duquesne, where he remained a philosophy professor until 2006.

Though he also taught Asian philosophy, he was a specialist in the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He taught generations of students, including the seminarians from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh's St. Paul Seminary, and was a popular professor known for his sense of humor and outlandish neckties.

"He was famous for teaching this serious philosophy but having a light side to him as well," said James Swindal, a philosophy professor and dean of Duquesne's McAnulty College of Liberal Arts. "He was very engaging. He seemed younger than he was. He kept up on philosophy. ... He was very interested in the students. He wasn't one of these big academic egos."

Mr. Ramirez's extensive travels helped him stand out among the faculty.

"He kept an aura of having been around," Mr. Swindal said. "He had kind of a twinkle in his eye ... that was part of his wit and his charm."

Fluent in Spanish and English, Mr. Ramirez was proficient, by varying degrees, in French, Italian and German, and never lost his wanderlust, traveling to China, Japan, the Soviet Union, South America, the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island.

His wife marveled at his ability to decipher foreign alphabets and find his way around strange countries with minimal assistance.

"It was a wonderful gift," she said. "He was fascinated by people and places and also ideas."

Mr. Ramirez, who lived with his wife in Upper St. Clair, also leaves behind three children and three grandchildren.

Family and friends will be received from 1 to 3 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Freyvogel-Slater Funeral Directors, 112 Fort Couch Road, Bethel Park. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Thomas More Church, 126 Fort Couch Road.


Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.


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