Most San Quentin inmates have never heard of Wanda Ramey. Nonetheless, she is a presence in their lives every time they turn on their TV. Ramey and her husband, Richard Quierolo, first came to San Quentin Prison in 1960 to film a story on prison life. This led to a continuous relationship with the prison that led to the birth of SQTV, the prison-run closed-circuit TV station.
Ramey died of cancer in August at age 85 but her legacy lives on. She was one of the nation’s first female anchors in the western United States. She was co-host of the first local television noon newscast in America and she broke the line that kept women from doing hard-news gathering. She was recognized in both radio and television as a genuine pioneer, paving the way for women who today have an easier entree into an industry that was dominated by men, women such as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley. Ramey was also the first woman volunteer allowed inside San Quentin.
Ramey’s husband, Richard Quierolo, developed an interest in the mechanics of his wife’s career, becoming a TV cameraman and often working with and for his wife. Ramey covered President Kennedy’s assassination, and interviewed more than 1,200 well-known personalities, including Ronald Reagan, Carl Sandburg, John Kennedy, Caryl Chessman, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. Of all these interviews, Ramey remembered one of her first as the most memorable: Eleanor Roosevelt, the woman who was Wanda’s own inspiration and role model growing up.
A ROUGHER PLACE
Ramey and her husband taught television journalism as well as film and television production skills to many prison inmates. He helped prisoners learn the particulars of cameras while she filled them in on the details of narration and coordination. And this was back when San Quentin was a much rougher place than it is now.
In 1965 Ramey’s S.Q. students thanked and honored her by naming her an “Honorary Inmate.” That same year, as part of a film workshop taught by Ramey and her husband, a group of inmates produced a sports documentary. During the summer of 1966 a documentary on emergency farm labor was shot on location in the San Joaquin Valley by a small and select group of their students.
In 1967, a group of about 50 of their trainees produced a telefilm, The Cage that was broadcast on KQED. According to San Francisco Examiner columnist Dwight Newton, “It is … a grim, sometimes gripping, semi-real, semi-fanciful half-hour drama of four convicts captive in a barren, bunkless, chairless, concrete cell…” The prison allowed the telefilm to be produced because of the potential therapeutic value to the participants and of the possibility of obtaining funds to acquire equipment for the prison’s film workshop.
Larry Schneider, a state-employed TV specialist who has worked at SQTV for over 23 years, gives full credit to Ramey and her husband for what they did here. “Wanda, out of love for her husband, always said it’s all about Richard. They were a team.”
Lonnie Morris, a long-time resident of San Quentin who worked at SQTV in the early 90s remembers, “The thing that stood out to me about Wanda is that she cared about us as human beings and she loved her husband. Wanda was like a mother to us.” Morris’ eyes began to tear up as he recalled Dick Quierolo using a walker to come to visit. “He was up in age, around 77 at the time, but always had a smile. One time Dick came to see us in a wheelchair. We asked what he was doing and Dick said, ‘I had to come see my boys.’”
E. Phillips is a musician and artist who works as an editor at SQTV. Phillips said, “ I found skills I never thought I had before. If SQTV weren’t here I would not have the creative outlet that I have now because creative arts is what really drives me. Working at SQTV has given me a specialized and marketable skill that expands my opportunities on the outside.”
Marvin Andrews, Buckshot Maples and a new generation of film students are all reaping the benefits of a community service commitment that began nearly 50 years ago with Wanda Ramey and her husband.
Author’s Note: I work at SQTV as a video production technician. After researching and reading about Wanda Ramey, I am inspired and in awe. With tears in my eyes, I state that if I only grow to be a fraction of the person she was, I will have lived to be a great journalist and human being of substance.