Ralph Townsend graduated from Lebanon High School in New Hampshire and then attended the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where he was in Army ROTC. He served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Townsend served as a squad leader in the third platoon of K Company, 8th Regiment of 10th Mountain Division. In March 1945, K Company led the attack on the steep hill of Cimon della Piella, Italy, with Townsend suffering serious wounds, for which he received the Purple Heart, but was told by doctors that he would not be able to ski competitively again. Despite that warning, Townsend did ski again and quite well. Returning to UNH he won two US cross-country titles in 1947 and 1949. He graduated from UNH in 1949 and earned a masters degree in 1953.
In 1950 Ralph Townsend began a career at Williams College as a phys ed professor, ski coach, and assistant coach for both football and lacrosse. A legend at Williams, he founded the Williams Outing Club, helped build the Berlin Mountain Ski Area, and worked in ski administration nationally as well. He was director of the US Eastern Amateur Ski Association in 1951, President of the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (1958-60), and secretary of the NCAA Ski Rules Committee in 1962. In his honor, in 1959 Williams began awarding the Ralph J. Townsend Ski Trophy to the best men’s skier. Townsend was inducted into the US Ski Hall of Fame in 1975. He has also been inducted into the Army ROTC Hall of Fame.