Obituary: Roger Ramseier, 77, led Aerojet after end of Cold War

Published: Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am

Roger Ramseier, a former Aerojet president who led the aerospace and defense contractor amid major industry downsizing after the end of the Cold War, died Sept. 13 of complications related to prostate cancer, his family said. He was 77.

Mr. Ramseier, who grew up in Sacramento, spent his entire career at Aerojet, a maker of rocket engines and missile propulsion systems based in Rancho Cordova. He started after graduating in 1959 from UC Berkeley – where he played football under legendary coach Pappy Waldorf – and climbed the ranks with a reputation as a visionary leader who approached problems head on.

“If you’re looking over your shoulder, you’re not going to see what’s ahead of you,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1990.

In 1978, Mr. Ramseier was named head of Aerojet’s liquid rocket division, which was facing possible closure after shutting down production of Titan rocket engines as the space shuttle program was gearing up. Convinced that the United States needed more than one way to get satellites into space, he joined other Aerojet executives in lobbying Washington officials for a space shuttle companion vehicle. After the 1986 Challenger explosion temporarily halted shuttle flights, Aerojet was ready to provide NASA with rockets to launch satellites.

Named president in 1989, Mr. Ramseier created a mild stir when he decided to move the company’s headquarters from San Diego to Rancho Cordova. A bigger challenge was keeping Aerojet viable in the early 1990s, when the company laid off more than 2,500 workers as contracts for ballistic missile rocket engines and the “Star Wars” defense program declined sharply.

He led efforts to leverage the company’s expertise in other areas, including developing a program to recycle rocket fuel from decommissioned missiles controlled by the United States and former Soviet republics. Aerojet also worked to convert “Star Wars” sensor technology into products for monitoring pollution.

His tenure as president for eight years also was marked by disputes about groundwater pollution in the Rancho Cordova area caused by improper disposal of chemicals on Aerojet property. The company agreed to a cleanup at total costs estimated at more than $1 billion.

Born July 18, 1936, in Culver City, Roger Irvin Ramseier moved with his family to Carmichael and graduated from El Camino High School in 1954. A top athlete, he played baseball and football while earning a business degree at UC Berkeley. For almost six decades, he was a regular at Cal football games and an active member of Pappy’s Boys, a group of former players who socialized and raised money for Cal programs.

He served six months active duty in the National Guard and 13 years in the Reserve while working at Aerojet. He graduated from the executive program in business administration at Columbia University and received an honorary degree from Golden Gate University. He served on the boards of Big Brothers, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Association.

Mr. Ramseier moved to Carnelian Bay on the north shore of Lake Tahoe after retiring from Aerojet in 1997 and was a past president of Tahoe City Rotary Club. He enjoyed family gatherings, traveling, skiing in the Sierra Nevada and taking friends out on Lake Tahoe in his boat.

“He was always interested in people,” said his stepson Jason Drury. “If he met you, he’d remember your name and want to know everything that was going on in your life. He was a very warm and happy person.”

Besides his stepson, Mr. Ramseier is survived by his wife of 29 years, Donna Benner; two sons from a previous marriage, James and Michael; a sister, Betts Riolo; a brother, Daniel; and five grandchildren.

A celebration of life is set for 10 a.m. Oct. 12 at the North Tahoe Event Center, 8318 N. Lake Blvd., Kings Beach. Information about a service to be held in Sacramento will be posted at

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe or to the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.

Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.

Read more articles by Robert D. Dávila

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