Sheldon Herman Ramsdell

  • Born: August 31, 1935
  • Died: March 25, 1996
  • Location: San Francisco, California

Tribute & Message From The Family

Sheldon Ramsdell at Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1995.


Birth: 31 Aug 1935, Wells, York County, Maine
Death: 25 Mar 1996, San Francisco City & County, California
Age: 60
Cause: AIDS

[Cremated: Ashes scattered at 1996 March on Washington, D.C. for Lesbian/Gay Rights]

OBITUARY -- Sheldon Herman Ramsdell (age 60)
Published on Saturday, March 30, 1996, San Francisco Chronicle

Sheldon Ramsdell -- photojournalist, publicist & political activist who co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1960s -- died Monday at his home in San Francisco after a long battle with AIDS at age 60.

Since the early 1980s, Ramsdell had been an advocate for people with AIDS, gays & lesbians & for veterans. He was also an activist in the Democratic Party on labor union issues.

In 1967, Ramsdell was one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, one of the most influential anti-war groups of the era, which in 1971 staged a dramatic march on Washington in which veterans tossed their medals over a fence onto the Capitol steps.

Ramsdell was a press aide for the veterans' group, and served in the same role for the presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy & New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

His photographs were exhibited in the New York Public Theater & on NBC TV's Today Show, and were published in a range of newspapers & magazines including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Esquire and Time.

He is survived by his parents, Herman & Louise Ramsdell, of Olgonquit, Maine; a sister, Shirley Suglia, of Shelton, Conn.; and brothers, Donald Ramsdell of Naples, Fla., and Glenn Ramsdell, of Wells, Maine.

Contributions may be made to The Restitution Project, 584 Castro Street 514, San Francisco 94114, a new organization dedicated to acknowledging the contribution of lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender veterans.

Published in 'THE VETERAN' newsletter, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 50 cents, Fall 1996 (Volume 26, Number 1, Page 11);
Obituary only:
Full newsletter:

Obit and photo by Linda Alband [incorrectly attributed to the Bay Area Reporter's Mary Ann Swissler]

Sheldon 'Shelly' [Herman] Ramsdell
August 31, 1935 - March 25, 1996

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.

Ramsdell, Sheldon, 1935-1996. WorldCat
(birth 1935 - death 1996)

[From the description of Sheldon Herman Ramsdell papers, 1955-1996. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 64055747']

Biographical History: Photojournalist Sheldon (Shelly) Ramsdell, born on August 31, 1935 in Maine, served in the Navy, flying photograph missions over Indochina ca. 1955-58. He was honorably discharged in 1958. In 1967, he was one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, one of the most influential anti-war groups of the era. In addition to photographing celebrities, Ramsdell served as chief press aide for Senator Eugene J. McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid, as well as for New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug. His photographs were published in periodicals including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Esquire, and Time. He was also an activist in the Democratic Party on labor union issues. Since the early 1980s, Ramsdell was an activist on behalf of people with AIDS, gay men and lesbians, and veterans. He died March 25, 1996 in San Francisco after a long battle with AIDS.

By Jan Barry

For Sheldon Ramsdell
August 31, 1935 - March 25, 1996

Dead in San Francisco, the obits noted
he was an activist: Vietnam Veterans Against
the War, Gene McCarthy, AIDS. What friends recall
is the artist, whose best work was his life.

From blustery Maine he joined the Navy,
cruising the South China Sea on a carrier,
flying photo missions over Indochina
while kids back home necked to rock 'n' roll.

Surviving a crashing fighter that exploded
across the flight deck, he mustered out
and aimed his photographer's eye on New York,
artfully shooting celebrities.

With a Manhattan pad and a Broadway clientele,
life was lush -- except for the growing, gnawing war.
When a peace parade thronged down Fifth Avenue,
he joined a motley crew of dissident vets.

As America split, he felt this is where he fit.
He'd shot Vietnam before war flared into living rooms.
His aerial photos helped planners plot bomb targets.
He enlisted in the end-the-war campaign.

He brought his camera, his wacky sense of comic
relief, and his secret of being gay.
He kissed off Broadway, his photos in national
magazines. He'd heard another call.

[Jan Barry was a founding member of VVAW and a former National Officer. He lives in New Jersey and is a poet, writer and editor. He's an Army Vietnam Veteran.]

Sheldon Ramsdell Archives
By Linda Alband

I have recently set up an archive for Sheldon "Shelly" Ramsdell at Cornell University. I am requesting that anyone with Ramsdell-related items consider sending them on to Cornell when it is convenient.

Shelly's archives are far flung. My goals for this effort are two fold: (1) To gather as much as possible at Cornell, and (2) to put the Cornell archivist in touch with other extant collections (McGovern collection, McCarthy collection, No. California LGBT Historical Society, etc.) I am also working with his family regarding securing potential archival holdings that they may have.

Overall, I am trying to create a comprehensive picture of his work through this collection "network." At some point, if I am able to find key pieces, perhaps I can raise some money to begin a non-profit book project based on his photography with any proceeds going to support organizations like VVAW, the Alexander Hamilton and Bob Basker American Legion Posts, AIDS education organizations, etc.

Please contact me directly with any questions, suggestions of people I should contact regarding Ramsdell archival materials, or to obtain information on sending materials to Cornell. Cornell will reimburse you for any shipping-related expenses.


Linda Alband
Executor, Sheldon H. Ramsdell Estate

Guide to the Sheldon Herman Ramsdell Papers,1955-1996.

Finding aid of the Sheldon Ramsdell Papers

Description: Journal, ephemera, correspondence, and other materials collected by political activist and photojournalist Sheldon Ramsdell.

Background: Sheldon "Shelley" Ramsdell was a photojournalist, publicist and political activist who co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1960s. Since the early 1980s, Ramsdell was a advocate for people with AIDS, gays, lesbians, and veterans. He was also an activist in the Democratic Party on labor union issues.

Extent: 4.75 linear feet 3 manuscript boxes, 1 carton

Restrictions: Copyright to unpublished manuscript materials has been transferred to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Availability: Collection open for research.

Sheldon Ramsdell Papers

Front Cover
Sheldon Ramsdell
1974 - AIDS (Disease)
0 Reviews

Papers document the activities of photojournalist and activist Sheldon Ramsdell. Most of these materials relate to Ramsdell's activities in San Francisco including his participation in ACT UP Golden Gate, his fight to over turn the ban on gays in the military, his battle with HIV, and various other causes in which he was heavily involved. His personal journals from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s dramatically illustrate Ramsdell's personal battle with AIDS as well as his more public struggle for civil rights. The Personal (1974-1994) series includes materials from the personal life of Sheldon Ramsdell. The subseries, Journals/Notebooks consists of nineteen personal journals and notebooks. These journals cover a range of topics including Ramsdell's personal struggles with AIDS, reflections on current politics and issues, news clippings, letters, and other personal information. Also found in this series are newspaper clippings about or written by Ramsdell, items from a memorial service for a friend of Ramsdell's, information about an experimental HIV treatment Ramsdell was undergoing, a play, and an Oral History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The series Activism (1975-1993) documents Ramsdell's participation in various causes. The subseries AIDS Activism contains materials which illustrate Ramsdell's activities as an AIDS activist in San Francisco, particularly as a member of ACT UP Golden Gate and participating in the fight against Proposition 64, the "LaRouche Initiative" which sought to place AIDS back on the state's List of Communicable Diseases subject to Public Health law. Other material documents Ramsdell's participation in attempts to overturn the United States Military's ban on homosexuals and other materials particularly surrounding the formulation of President Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. The rest of the materials cover several other causes including petitioning for prison reforms, outreach to religious leaders and believers, interactions with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and analysis of 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' rhetoric regarding AIDS.

[Book co-authored by Sheldon Ramsdell]

"What Does a Photographer Do" Jun 1965
by Mergandahl, T.E., Jr. and Sheldon Ramsdell
Currently unavailable

Sheldon Ramsdell in the 1940 Census

First Name: Sheldon
Last Name: Ramsdell
Age at Time of Census: 4
Gender: Male
Race: White
Ethnicity: American
Est. Birth Year: 1936
Birth Location: Maine Map
Enumeration District: 16-87
Residence: Wells Town, York, ME Map
Relationship to Head of Household: Son
Other People in Household:

Shirley Ramsdell
7 yrs, Female
Herman Ramsdell
31 yrs, Male
Louise Ramsdell
27 yrs, Female
Donald Ramsdell
3 yrs, Male
Marital Status: Single
Language: English
Genealogical Society Number: 005462041
NARA Publication Number: T627
NARA Microfilm Roll Number: 1497
Line Number: 21
Sheet: A
Sheet Number: 6
Collection: 1940 U.S. Federal Population Census

"The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War" (Google eBook)

Front Cover
Andrew E. Hunt
NYU Press, Jul 1, 1999 - History - 296 pages

Page 188: "...Two other key VVAW figures, Jack McCloskey & SHELDON RAMSDELL, died in 1996. McCloskey, a resident of San Francisco, served as VVAW's Pacific coordinator at the time of his death. He had suffered from numerous physical problems for several years. RAMSDELL, a founding member of VVAW who was appointed "honorary vice president" in 1992, succumbed to AIDS shortly after McCloskey died. Members have tried not to allow the lossed to deter them..."


"The anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States is perhaps best remembered for its young, counterculture student protesters. However, the Vietnam War was the first conflict in American history in which a substantial number of military personnel actively protested the war while it was in progress.

"In The Turning, Andrew Hunt reclaims the history of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), an organization that transformed the antiwar movement by placing Vietnam veterans in the forefront of the nationwide struggle to end the war. Misunderstood by both authorities and radicals alike, VVAW members were mostly young men who had served in Vietnam and returned profoundly disillusioned with the rationale for the war and with American conduct in Southeast Asia. Angry, impassioned, and uncompromisingly militant, the VVAW that Hunt chronicles in this first history of the organization posed a formidable threat to America's Vietnam policy and further contributed to the sense that the nation was under siege from within.

"Based on extensive interviews and in-depth primary research, including recently declassified government files, The Turning is a vivid history of the men who risked censures, stigma, even imprisonment for a cause they believed to be 'an extended tour of duty.'"

"I met Sheldon Shelly Herman Ramsdell and his closest friend & political activist John Belskus in early 1989 when they visited me at my apartment in San Francisco during a hunger strike I was on for state and federal laws protecting gays & 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 time 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. 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 vague & mostly unknown to me until after he died. This included the extent of his involvement in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (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 military photographer in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, before co-founding VVAW, And his later activism for gay people and those with HIV & AIDS, even when diagnosed with AIDS himself, was awe inspiring. His rainbow decorating of J. Edgar Hoover's grave is my favorite Sheldon anecdote." --Stuart McDonald

Bay Area Reporter's (San Francisco's premier gay newspaper at the time) obituaries of Sheldon for the GLBT Historical Society archives: Memorial for Sheldon: Memorial for Sheldon:

My Memorial for Sheldon:

Family links:
Herman Clifford Ramsdell (1908 - 2001):
Velma Louise Traves Ramsdell (1912 - 2013):