Lady luck has led a lot of people to Nantucket, but perhaps none more so than Augie Ramos. Back in 1951, Ramos hopped on the Steamship Authority ferry leaving his hometown of New Bedford. Shooting craps with the merchant marines below deck, the seventeen-year-old got on such a roll that he stayed on the ferry as it motored from New Bedford to Nantucket and then back again. Ramos continued to win as the ferry made the day’s second trip to the island. “I don’t know how much money it was,” he says today. “Coming from where I came from, a hundred dollars was a lot of money.” Whatever the amount, it was enough for Ramos to want to jump ship when the ferry came to Nantucket for the second time, fearing that the merchant marines would want to take their money back from him. It turned out to be the greatest gamble of Augie Ramos’s life — a gamble that paid off big time.
During the fifties, making a life on Nantucket as the son of Cape Verdean immigrants and with no formal education was not easy. Prejudice was prevalent, making it difficult to obtain housing and employment. Wages started at 85 cents an hour, the cost of gasoline was 36 cents per gallon, and the year-round population of the island was around three thousand. Ramos landed his first job as a dishwasher at the White Elephant, where he did the work of three men and lived in employee dormitories. When winter came, he got a job at Island Service Company, which supplied Nantucket with ice, coal, lumber and fuel. By 1955, Ramos joined a road crew, paving Hummock Pond from Joy Street to Vesper Lane. His crew worked from an old dump truck that kept breaking down and Ramos was responsible for bringing it to Straight Wharf Auto to get fixed. Soon he learned to service the old truck himself, and the garage’s owner Francis Holdgate took notice and offered him a job. So it was for those early years, pinballing from one job to the next, learning new skills and developing an entrepreneurial mind. “In those days, you made $47 a week and worked hard for it,” he says. “These days you make $47 an hour and don’t have to work that hard.”
As Ramos’s professional life began to unfold, he married a Nantucketer named Virginia Correia. The young couple moved off-island for a year, during which time Ramos worked at a New Bedford factory making silverware. One day, he rescued a fellow worker whose arm got caught in the machinery. The accident inspired him to invent a safety device to prevent such accidents from happening again. His design was so ingenious that his manager gave him a raise and asked him if he wanted to move to Japan to improve their operations there. But Ramos declined; he and his wife wanted to go back to Nantucket.
Ramos and Correria eventually had two children, Toni and Edmund, who was nicknamed Rookie. To support his young family on Nantucket, Ramos pursued a number of jobs and business ventures. As a subcontractor, he poured the concrete to rebuild one of Nantucket’s most iconic landmarks, Great Point Lighthouse. Because his concrete truck wasn’t allowed on the beach, Ramos loaded it onto a barge and ferried it up to the point where he poured all the concrete to rebuild the lighthouse that stands today. By the early 1970s, Ramos started his own construction company and then purchased an asphalt company. His hard work quickly paid off. Within twenty years of arriving on Nantucket with a wad of gambling winnings, Ramos owned 125 acres of island.
But business was not the only public sphere where Ramos wanted to excel. In 1989, he decided to run for Board of Selectmen and won by a landslide, receiving 81 percent of the vote and becoming the first person of color to be elected. As a selectman, Ramos fought for affordable housing, but his real success on the issue came as a member of the Nantucket Housing Authority, which helped build Miacomet Village. He’s since received numerous awards and commendations for his commitment to the Nantucket community. Just this past June, the Massachusetts House of Representatives awarded him a citation for being named senior citizen of the year by the Nantucket Council on Aging.
Today, eighty-two-year-old Augie Ramos still has strong feelings about what it means to live and work on Nantucket. “People need to get the right pay,” he says from his junkyard on South Shore Road. “And every business in town needs to have their own dormitory space.” Ramos has seen the island change dramatically in the six decades he’s lived here, but he still believes in the one element that makes Nantucket truly unique. “We got a lot of good people around here,” he says. “There’s movers and shakers and then there’s movers and fakers.” He laughs. “But they all do good work in their own way.”