What can you tell me about the old Jack Ruby ambulance company? This was before the fire department started providing emergency services. And I don't believe he was the same Jack Ruby who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, was he? — R.R., Paragould, Arkansas
Dear R.R.: Gosh no, absolutely not. In fact, "our" Jack Ruby was far more interested in saving lives than taking them. But because of the deeds — or misdeeds — associated with them, certain names probably should be retired. I mean, you're just asking for trouble naming a child John Wilkes Booth, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or Jack Ruby. Other names come to mind.
Including, of course, Vance Lauderdale.
As you noted, ambulances were once run by private companies, and in the 1950s and '60s, perhaps the best known of those was operated by a fellow named Jack Ruby, born in 1907 in Olive Branch, Mississippi. I don't know much at all about his early life — where he went to school, what his parents did, and all that. Old newspaper clippings tell me that his first job came in 1929, driving ambulances for the Hinton Funeral Home and later Thompson Brothers Mortuary in Memphis. Yes, that's correct — funeral homes ran ambulances, which just doesn't seem right to me. I mean, would it really be in their best interest to get you to a hospital on time? I'd be afraid the driver would dawdle along the way, maybe even stop for lunch, hoping that he could instead deliver a new "customer" to the funeral parlor that employed him.
Ruby eventually became a licensed embalmer and funeral director — again, not exactly something you want to know about the fellow behind the wheel of that ambulance you're in. When World War II started, Ruby took part in the Normandy invasion and then became an ambulance driver for the Army. After the war, he returned to Memphis and in 1950 started his own ambulance company, with just three customized Cadillacs like the one shown here.
Although it's hard to believe there was a time when people actually knew the names of ambulance drivers, Ruby was a very popular fellow around town. I found a typewritten biography on him in the Special Collections Department of the University of Memphis Libraries, prepared in 1957 for Allstate Insurance Company for some reason, and it notes, "His name is one of the best-known in Northern Mississippi."
There was a reason for that. In 1936, a killer tornado smacked into Tupelo, Mississippi, claiming more than 200 lives. Ruby was the first ambulance driver from Memphis to reach the devastated area and, according to the Allstate report, spent "days of unrelieved duty finding and rescuing victims." In later years, he helped with many other storms, wrecks, drownings, and disasters, and often worked long hours for free.
"Ambulance tires cost $100 each, but no one has ever bought Ruby a tire," says the report. "On many tornado calls he has not got a $5 bill for his trouble, nor even thanks — yet he always answers the call for help. He doesn't even entertain any hope of being paid for saving lives."
Ruby once told the Memphis Press-Scimitar that he had no idea how many emergency calls he had made in his long career, but he estimated he had driven more than 500,000 miles. He showed a reporter a book of "trip bills" for just one year that was almost five inches thick. "These are unpaid bills," he said. "Some have money and won't pay. Others just can't pay. But I have never sued a man in my life and I am not going to start now." Ruby estimated that close to 100 percent of emergency runs resulted in "hospital hauls" but only 50 percent of those patients actually paid for his service. "The other 50 percent," said the report, "is just Ruby's contribution to the welfare of the Mid-South."
One time, Ruby needed his own ambulance. On a November evening in 1960, while driving back to Memphis from Hernando, Mississippi, he hit a mule that strayed onto the highway. The mule smashed through his car's windshield. "I threw myself down in the seat just in time," he told reporters, "but it was close." A Jack Ruby ambulance rushed to the scene and whisked him to Methodist Hospital, where doctors stitched up serious head wounds from the flying glass.
Over the years, Ruby expanded his fleet, adding telephones to his cars when that was quite a novelty, and installing what the newspapers called "all the latest scientific and medical gadgets." His company was located at the corner of McLemore and College, almost across the street from Stax, and Ruby was so dedicated to his job that he made his home at the same address.
When the news reached him in November 1963 that someone named Jack Ruby had killed Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, he told reporters, "I didn't like that at all." People apparently called to offer their congratulations, but he would have none of it. "It shook me up," he said. "I want everybody to know it wasn't me."
Ruby passed away on March 19, 1970, at the age of 63. "Running the ambulance service that bore his name was much more than a vocation," eulogized the Press-Scimitar. "It was his life." Ruby was at the scene of just about every emergency in the Memphis area for more than two decades. "He handled patients gently, did not grumble if they were unable to pay, and often lingered at hospitals to reassure their loved ones. Thousands will long remember this happy-hearted, kindly, and dedicated man."
Dear Vance: What do you remember about the big restaurant that once stood close to the intersection of East Parkway and North Parkway? They had very fine catfish. — J.B., Memphis
Dear J.B.: You must be remembering Ray Gammon's, a popular Memphis eatery for some 25 years. Located at 2374 Summer, it was a rather nondescript two-story brick building with a big neon sign across the front. Before Gammon moved in, the place originally housed an eatery called the Wright Diner and, later, Grisanti's Café. After some searching, I finally located the photo here in a 1969 Southwestern (now Rhodes College) yearbook. Gammon's served catfish, steaks, barbecue, and all sorts of home-cooked meals, and was quite a hangout for both college kids and families.
Gammon (below) was an interesting fellow, a former golf pro at Galloway, Cherokee, and other courses around town. At one time, he also operated The Pit, a very popular drive-in at Poplar and Hollywood. Sometime in the early 1950s, he opened Ray Gammon's on Summer, running it until poor health forced him to retire in the 1970s. Gammon died in 1975, and the restaurant closed soon after, I believe, and was demolished. The site is now a Family Dollar Store.