Email joke lists everywhere suffered a devastating loss when key contributor Colonel James W. Ralph, M.D. was ordered home on April 24th. In 81 brilliant years, Jim created a life that was one-half legend, one-half mystery, and one-half whatever he wanted to tell you, which could have been any of seventeen versions of his life story, one of which is preserved below.
November 16th, 1936, was a cold and blustery day in Washington, D.C., and tumultuous autumn winds carried Jim Ralph into the world with a howl. The son of Dorothy and Henry Ralph, Jim was half English, a quarter German, a fourth Irish and a fifth of Scotch. At the age of twelve he moved with his parents to Oklahoma, where he was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts, completing a 50-mile hike at the Philmont Scout Ranch and earning the Eagle Scout award. After escaping the local high school relatively unscathed, Jim enrolled at Westminster College where he pledged the Sigma Chi fraternity. After two years of partying, the school salvaged the remaining buildings on campus by shipping him off to Stanford University, which, in 1958, handed him a pre-med degree and told him that he was needed on the other side of the country as soon as possible, please and thank you.
Jim graduated from Duke Medical School in 1962 and immediately began seeking out new and exciting adventures. He caught wind of a volunteer organization offering new doctors all-expense-paid trips to serve in exotic locales. “Sign me up!” he said, and upon stepping off the plane Jim discovered that the organization was the U.S. Army and the locale was Vietnam. His military professionalism was infused with a good dose of humor and daring, earning him the nickname “Crazy Doc” among his comrades. Jim completed over 400 helicopter evacuation missions while in Vietnam, earning the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, eleven Air Medals, the Army Commendation for Valor, and many other recognitions across three tours of duty. The sheer number of medals pinned to the front of his uniform caused him to stoop forward severely and led to back problems for the rest of his life, though he humbly attributed the aches and pains to a helicopter crash in the Mekong Delta. He was awarded the Purple Heart after the crash, a medal that he discovered is a great deal heavier than it looks. After his long strange trip to Southeast Asia, Jim began his civilian medical career. He established a private otolaryngology practice in New Jersey where he became well-known for performing head and neck surgery and coining such legendary phrases as, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”
One fateful day in 1972, Jim walked into the Bergen County Hospital operating room where he was confronted by a scrub nurse named Barbara Reiner. “I’ve heard about you,” she told him, “and I want you to know that your shenanigans will not be tolerated in my operating room.” Terrified, Jim realized that he had finally met his match and immediately married the nurse to save his own neck. Together Jim and Barbara built a home and a family and an amazing love story. They traveled the United States and Europe as Jim worked as a surgeon in the Naval Reserve, the active-duty Air Force, and finally his own private practice. During these years his legend grew, and the Boy Scouts of America realized they had no choice but to honor him with their most prestigious honor, Distinguished Eagle Scout.
Jim’s peaceful family life was rudely interrupted when Iraq decided to invade Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. Army decided that his presence was required in the Persian Gulf. His careful inspection of field hospitals throughout the theater was integral to the quick defeat of the Iraqi Army, and even Saddam Hussein admitted that Jim’s appearance in the region was reason enough to send the Republican Guard scurrying into the nearest spider hole. Jim chose to make the Army his full-time gig again upon his return from the Gulf. He completed a three-year victory lap in Europe, where he chased the last of the Commie Reds out of the former Eastern Bloc. Western Europe completely abandoned border security at his request, allowing Jim and Barbara to travel the continent with impunity. Upon returning to the United States Jim was assigned to his final post at UCLA, or as he called it, “the Ugliest Corner of Lower Alabama.” He finished his military career at Fort Rucker where he was awarded the Legion of Merit by the Department of the Army for a career’s worth of “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.”
Jim and Barbara retired to Inverness, Florida, where he continued to give of his time and expertise to local Boy Scout troops, veterans’ groups, the Citrus High School JROTC, Genesis Hearing Care, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and VFW Post 4864’s weekly hot dog and beer happy hour. They spent their golden years traveling by cruise ship to every known corner of the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico. On the first day of 2010 Barbara went ahead of Jim, as she did on so many occasions, to set up a new home in Heaven. Jim left Inverness shortly thereafter, living his final years around his beloved granddaughters in Central Florida, where he enjoyed watching them grow up until receiving his final set of orders. He reported to his new station as ordered on April 24th, where he was happily reunited with his cherished Barbie Doll.
Jim was preceded in death by his beloved wife Barbara, his parents Dorothy and Henry, and his daughter Betsy. He is survived by his sister Betty, of Pennsylvania, and his brother Forest, of Texas; sons Philip and Randy, both of California (from a previous marriage); sons Scott and Jay, both of Florida (from his marriage to Barbara); granddaughters Summer, of Hawaii, and Elise and Ainsley, both of Florida; and great-granddaughter Arielle, of Hawaii.
Jim and Barbara will be laid to rest together at Arlington National Cemetery with America’s greatest war heroes, at a date to be determined by America’s greatest bureaucrats. While quiet and respect is expected at this hallowed ground, those wearing long faces and black clothing will not be admitted to the memorial service. All are welcome to join the family in celebrating these two extraordinary lives and their wonderful marriage, and after the service is done and you’ve returned home, on those lucky days that a memory of Jim sneaks into your consciousness and tiptoes through your thoughts, be sure to put on your favorite ABBA 8-track, raise a glass of cheap rum or overpriced beer, and bend the nearest ear with a story of a giant life well-lived and well-loved.