COVINGTON - After a decade leading the city of Covington, Mayor Sam Ramsey presided over his last City Council meeting Dec. 17.
He called that meeting to order with unusual vigor, banging his wooden gavel especially hard.
"Since I'm never going to do that again, I want to make sure I do it real good," he said.
The next day, he admitted the moment was bittersweet. While he said he knows it's time for him to step aside and turn the job over to Mayor-elect Kim Carter, Ramsey said he'll miss being at the helm of the city he loves and to which he has devoted the last 37 years of his life.
Those 37 years have been marked by unwavering integrity and faith, according to those who have worked closely with him. It is Ramsey's compassion for those in need, his staunch value system, his deep faith and his cautious business sense that his colleagues predict will be his lasting legacy.
"When I think about Sam ... I think of integrity," said former City Manager Frank Turner, a childhood friend of Ramsey's. "It's kind of corny to say, but you know the Boy Scout laws? He fulfills every one of them."
In fact, Ramsey is on the Atlanta Area Council for the Boy Scouts of America, a position he has held for the past 40 years.
Ramsey is also chairman of the board of trustees for Salem Campground, the historic Methodist meeting site he calls the nearest place to heaven on earth. His family has been attending services there since 1828, and he is the fourth generation to serve as board chairman.
Ramsey doesn't deny the impact his faith has had on his mayorship.
"I couldn't have done it without having a strong faith," he said. "I think that it's important if you have a higher power to turn to sometimes to deal with some of those complex problems."
Ramsey has not shied from calling on people of faith to help with those problems either. Two years ago, he enlisted the help of area churches to get a nonprofit organization called FaithWorks off the ground. FaithWorks helps low-income residents struggling to pay rent and utilities, a problem Ramsey has said is continuing to worsen in the city.
"There's a lot of things that government cannot do. We think government can solve all our problems, but really and truly, the strength of any community is its people, and the strength of those people is the faith they've got in God," he said. "The churches in the community make all the difference in the world in the type of community you've got."
As those who know him well attest, Ramsey believes in helping those who are struggling to help themselves.
His voice was the loudest in the days leading up to a controversial vote on whether to purchase property for a homeless shelter in the city. He never wavered in his support of the project, and wound up casting the tie-breaking vote to approve the shelter.
"When it comes down to the difference between right and wrong, as he sees it, he's going to give you his opinion on the matter, whether you want it or not," City Manager Steve Horton said. "He is not a man of few words, but, rather, he is a man of deliberate thinking and vocabulary. He is a man who says what he means and means what he says. Mayor Ramsey is a man of overwhelming moral conviction. He will never compromise his integrity for the sake of popularity."
Ramsey's compassion extends to any resident who wants to have his voice heard, as evidenced by the fact that he rarely imposes time limits on residents who speak out during meetings, said Councilwoman Janet Goodman.
"He's very compassionate for the employees, too, but he also has sense enough to know to hire people to do a job and he lets them do that ... he doesn't overshadow them, he's not breathing over their shoulder," she said.
Goodman first met Ramsey in the 1950s, when she was just a child and he was a high school student running the only record store in town at his family's business, Ramsey Furniture, then operated by his father, C.D. Ramsey.
According to Ramsey, it was the only record store in about a five county area, and he managed to make enough money there to pay his way through college, selling 45s for $1 apiece and albums for a bit more.
He attended Oxford College and then Emory University, where he majored in business, an education he said prepared him to be mayor.
"The city is a big business operation," he said, pointing out that the city has its own gas, electric, roads and water departments and up until recently, its own cable television business.
Ramsey's coworkers have been impressed with his business sense.
"In the long run, his financial abilities to see things and analyze things were really tremendous," Turner said.
Or, as Goodman puts it, "I think he can stretch a dollar four and a half feet away from him. I don't think he wastes too many things."
Ramsey's business smarts netted him numerous offers from various companies once he graduated business school, but instead, after a stint in the Air Force, he chose to come home to run Ramsey Furniture, which has been in his family since 1919.
That was in 1964, and he's been selling sofas and recliners ever since.
Almost immediately, Ramsey got involved with the downtown merchant's association, helping to organize the first Fourth of July fireworks display in the city, a tradition that continues to this day.
In 1970, then-Mayor Bill Dobbs asked him to join the Planning Commission. He served on that body for 17 years and was then elected to the City Council, where he served from 1987 until 1998.
Ramsey was elected in 1998 to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Allene Burton following her resignation and was later re-elected twice, serving two full terms.
During his tenure, the city of Covington has received numerous awards and accolades. Most recently, the city was named one of 21 finalists from more than 600 communities nationwide in the All-American City competition.
Other honors include being named a certified City of Ethics and a City of Excellence by the Georgia Municipal Association, and being one of five communities selected statewide for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs' Signature Community Program.
But Ramsey is most proud of the national accreditations obtained by the city's public works, fire, police and 911 departments. The city is the first in Georgia and one of only three in the nation to have all four departments accredited.
He also is especially pleased with the cooperation he has helped foster between the city and county, which he said is unusual among local governments.
The best part of the job of mayor, he said, has been seeing projects come to fruition after so much hard work.
"It takes a long time in government from the time you start something to get through with it," he said. "I can make a decision to do something in this business that I want to do and I can get it done in a month or two's time, but goodness, you can't do that in government."
Still, a lot has been accomplished during Ramsey's two-and-a-half terms.
One measure of progress is the city's landscape, which Ramsey has watched change tremendously. He names the buildings that have been constructed in city limits during the last 10 years: the new judicial center, a new library, the health center, Turner Lake Park, the YMCA on Newton Drive, for which Ramsey helped secure the land, Washington Street Community Center, a new Board of Education building - the list goes on and on.
He's also seen a major change in city finances.
In 1997, the city operated on a $52.9 million budget.
The 2007 budget was $123.1 million.
One of the biggest challenges in the past 10 years, and in the years to come, Ramsey said, is the increasing cost of gas.
In 1997, the city spent $4 million on gas. In 2006, it spent $23 million, nearly six times as much.
While growth is partly responsible, much of the increase is due to extravagant pricing, he said, and he predicted that rising utility rates will continue to be one of the city's biggest challenges, as more and more people are unable to make payments.
Ramsey isn't confident the pace of progress during the last 10 years can continue.
"The future of the city depends on how fast metro Atlanta continues to grow," he said. "The last 10 years have been some great years, really, and when I look ahead at the resources we've got, and that includes economic resources, whether we'll be able to continue to do as much in the next 10 years as the last 10 years, I'm not so sure."
Ramsey is confident, however, in what he will be doing in the next few years: working at the furniture store, traveling with his wife and continuing his service at Salem and with the Boy Scouts.
"It's just been a real honor for me to be the mayor of a town that has so many fine people in it and to be able to work with Newton County like I have," he said. "I think I'm very lucky."