Life changes

Life changes

Henry Ramer: From gas station lawyer to foreign affairs guru

It sounds almost pointillist, the way Henry Ramer of Wayne describes it. He spent more than four decades as a lawyer, immersed in a niche specialty – gas stations (yes, you read that right) – and once he learned all the relevant law, he could devote himself to learning about his clients, putting dabs of information together to form a larger picture.

Now, at 72, he’s studying that big picture, working toward a masters degree in global affairs at Rutgers. He hopes to use that degree to teach on the university level.

Henry Ramer

Just as each one of Ramer’s clients has a story, so does he.

Ramer was born in Paterson, where his father owned a fruit store. He graduated from Rutgers with an undergraduate degree in 1962, and then went to Europe and Israel for a year. Born too soon to be a baby boomer, Ramer anticipated much of the adventures of the generation just a few years younger than he was, but without many of their advantages. He didn’t backpack – backpacks came in later. Instead, he “had a suitcase, with six months worth of stuff in it,” he said. Wheeled suitcases weren’t available for even longer, so he had to carry it by the old-fashioned swinging handle. “It was very heavy,” Ramer said.

Next, Ramer went to law school at Columbia; when he graduated, in 1966, he went into the Peace Corps, was sent to Sao Paolo, and “made an effort to introduce my Brazilian colleagues to some of the ideas about legal aid that were popular in the United States at the time.” He also learned Portuguese.

When he returned to the United States in 1968, Ramer moved back to Paterson, ran for office, and opened a business he called the Law Office of Henry Ramer. The forays into politics – he ran as a Republican for city council and state assembly – were unsuccessful, but the law firm took off. It was a solo practice, and he focused on zoning. Pretty quickly, that focus narrowed to gas stations.

On its face, it seems unlikely to those of us who know nothing about either zoning or gas stations that such a concentration would be unlikely to keep a law firm in business – but we’d be wrong.

“Gas stations in New Jersey are a very disfavored kind of land use,” Ramer said. “Everything is closely scrutinized by all levels of government; if the gas station on the corner wanted to change its signage, it would need to get some kind of zoning approval.” There were changes in the industry. The steel tanks that once were used began to fall apart and were replaced by fiberglass once the hole in the ground received environmental protection clearances. Mechanics’ shops were replaced by convenience stores. All these changes required legal work. Ramer was kept busy.

Another change was sociological. Ramer’s clients used to be big corporations, but eventually those corporate giants lost interest in small-scale retail. “They didn’t want to own stations, they just wanted to sell gas,” he said. “They would explore, drill, refine, and transport – but they didn’t want the stations, so they started to sell them.” The buyers, at least in northern New Jersey, tended to be “immigrants – Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans, Turks,” Ramer said. “My practice shifted.

“The corporate executives were all cut out of the same cloth, but these guys were scraping together nickels to achieve the American dream. And I was helping them get there.”

Ramer became so close to some of his clients that they became friends. One of them, an Indian who grew up in east Africa, spent his young adulthood in London, and never had lived in India – Indians, like Jews, have a diaspora – nonetheless chose to hold his daughter’s wedding in Bangalore. (That was because “he told me, ‘I have to invite 900 people to the wedding, and if it’s in New Jersey 800 of them are going to come,'” Ramer said.) Ramer and his wife, Carol, went to the wedding; they traveled throughout India then, including to Jaipur, Mumbai, and Delphi. “The last stop was on the banks of the Ganges; we went out in little boats to see the sunrise; people were washing themselves, praying, immolating corpses of their dead relatives.”

On that trip, as they had done many times before, the Ramers included a stop in Israel.

Although he loved his work, eventually it became routine, Ramer said. “What made me good was that I had seen it all before, but eventually – I had seen it all before.” He retired in April 2012, soon before he turned 71.

He was used to being busy, though, and the thought of having nothing to do was not acceptable to him. “I had always been interested in foreign affairs. I think I have been to 45 foreign counties. I decided to take courses.”

Next was the question of where to enroll. “You can go to a community college and sit there, and the information sort of washes over you,” he said. “There are no expectations, no discipline, no homework.” That was not for him.

“So I matriculated.” At Rutgers, the field often called international relations is named global affairs. That’s what he’s studying.

The move was logical in many ways – it combines his early passions with the knowledge he’s gained over his long career – but most of the people in his life did not see it that way. “Everyone – my wife, my two daughters, my brother – they all said ‘What????” he reported.

Everyone else in the program is younger than he is by many decades. “I’m much more serious about it in an intellectual way than they are,” he said. “They’re focused on getting a job. I’m focused on it as a way of learning, of challenging myself mentally. I don’t shy away from taking hard courses. And I show up to class on time.

“They probably hate me…,” he said ruefully.

His business experience also colors his response to class. He took a course on environmental policy, “and the professor, who is a very lovely person, and well motivated, assigned readings that were completely divorced from market concepts. They propose solutions to environmental problems with regulations that take no account of who would pay for them, or how they would be accomplished.”

He is planning on writing a thesis, most likely on the “origins of the Palestinian refugee situation, and how it affects Israeli politics and Israel’s relationship with its neighbors,” he said.

He also would like to teach once he graduates, a year and a half or so from now. “Somebody might wonder why I’m going to start a new career at this age, knowing the length of my teaching employment might be short,” he said. “But that’s the thing. It could be a year or it could be 10 years.

“Nobody knows.”

read more: