Literary Hall of Fame Was Ragan's Baby
Nothing ever got past the late Sam Ragan, longtime editor and publisher of The Pilot — nothing that had anything to do with encouraging writing and reading in the Old North State.
So somewhere around 1991, North Carolina’s literary godfather and poet laureate was negotiating with State Librarian Howard McGinn and Secretary of Cultural Resources Patric Dorsey about the “Center for the Book” concept then going on at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The program had been established in 1977 “to stimulate public interest in books, reading and libraries and to encourage the study of books and print culture.” Center for the Book projects included the Year of the Lifetime Reader, National Book Week, the Year of the Young Reader, “Read More About It,” “Books in our Future,” exhibits, lectures and symposia.
In 1984, the Library of Congress began setting up state affiliates.
“Center” sounds like a location. But with the exception of three independent centers (Alaska, Vermont and New Mexico), Centers for the Book are programs — within state library systems, public libraries, humanities councils or academic institutions. There are now 50 centers nationwide
But Sam wanted a stand-alone center, and he wanted it in Southern Pines. He also had the notion that associated with the center, North Carolina should have the first-in-the-country State Literary Hall of Fame.
High-level meetings were held in Raleigh and Southern Pines. A proposal was drawn up and presented to the Town Council of Southern Pines and approved. Newspaper articles filled the local and state papers — The North Carolina Center for the Book and the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame would be housed in the old library building at 180 SW Broad St. in Southern Pines. (The building, next door to the post office, now houses the town’s Finance, Planning and Utilities departments.)
Meanwhile, in Washington, a press release went out that North Carolina had been approved to be the 26th state with a Center for the Book. It was 1992.
All that had to happen now was (1) to wait for the new library to be built, thus vacating the charming old library on Broad Street, and (2) get the legislature to support the establishment of the center. A joint resolution of the Senate and House, introduced by Sens. Russell Walker and Howard Lee of the 16th District and handled in the House by Rep. Richard Morgan of Moore County, was given final approval and ratification on Friday, July 23, 1993.
Sam had learned that the resolution had to be in the name of a person, and he called to ask me, as director of the Paul Green Foundation, if Paul Green could be so named. Of course, we were delighted, as the following year (1994) would mark the 100th anniversary of Paul Green’s birth in Harnett County.
“We hope that the Center for the Book will become a reality sometime in the next year or two,” Cultural Resources Secretary Betty Ray McCain said in a letter dated in March 1993. She was in the process of finding some funding for the center.
State engineers were sent to visit the now-vacated old library building. Thinking it was just a perfunctory exercise, we waited with no fear. But when their report came back, they estimated it would cost, conservatively, in the neighborhood of $250,000 to bring the aging building up to code. The deal was off.
Sam and all his supporters were devastated. The town was able to find other uses for the old library and moved in. The Center for the Book would stay in Raleigh as a program of the State Library. And the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame? It would become part of the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in James Boyd’s former study.
It was the perfect compromise, of course, albeit a painful realization that the Center for the Book and the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame would be separate entities. In 1987, Sam had written in his introduction to “Weymouth: an Anthology of Poetry”:
“Weymouth was a place of hospitality for writers in the early days of the 1920s and 1930s when James Boyd was writing his novels, short stories and poems, helping to launch, as Jonathan Daniels insisted, the Southern Literary Renaissance. Writer friends of the Boyds such as William Faulkner, John Galsworthy, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, Paul Green, Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Laurence Stallings came to visit, and some stayed to write.”
We started our preparations to refurbish the study to be ready in time for the 1996 induction ceremony May 18.
Secretary of Cultural Resources Betty Ray McCain kept her promise. She said she would find funding, and she did. Among the state literary organizations — the N.C. Poetry Society, the N.C. Haiku Society, the N.C. Writers Conference and the N.C. Writers’ Network — the Network was selected (because of its paid staff) to administer the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
Of the $100,000 total, the Network granted Weymouth $10,000 for the use, in perpetuity, of the James Boyd study, and $10,000 of the grant was used that first year for the costs associated with inducting 15 writers. The remaining $80,000 was invested for future inductions.
His Untimely Death
Sam Ragan’s health was failing fast as we approached the 1996 induction ceremony — to be a grand affair in the Weymouth gardens. He was continuing to work with the committee to select the inductees — so difficult with North Carolina’s many fine writers.
It was decided that we had a lot of “catching up” to do. So for that first induction, the 15 chosen were all deceased: James Boyd, Charles Chesnutt, Jonathan Daniels, Inglis Fletcher, Paul Green, Bernice Kelly Harris, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), George Moses Horton, Randall Jarrell, Gerald Johnson, Guy Owen, Thad Stem Jr., Richard Walser, Manly Wade Wellman and Thomas Wolfe.
Handsome booklets were prepared, bios printed for each recipient, introducers and acceptors selected. Family members from near and very far were contacted. Invitations were issued. A grand reception with fresh local strawberries and a large imprinted cake was made ready. Greeters were engaged, guest books designed. A pro bono video film was produced by N.C. State University of the photographs and signage in the upstairs room, to be viewed by guests on the ground floor who couldn’t climb the stairs.
Sam was still thinking he could do one of the introductions … and then it became apparent he wouldn’t even be able to attend. We were at the printer’s absolute deadline. A replacement was found for Sam’s introduction, and a dedication was designed for the front of the book honoring Sam — with a drawing (by Evalynn Halsey) of him at his desk at The Pilot.
Sam died exactly one week before the induction ceremony of his beloved Literary Hall of Fame.
Immediately, we contacted his longtime friend, David Brinkley, to ask for his help, and he sent a very moving video tribute to Sam for those assembled outdoors under Weymouth’s famous towering cherry trees — not a dry eye in the place.
Sam’s presence loomed large all through the day. The next year, he was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. Since 1996, 39 writers have been so honored.
Induction ceremonies have been held each year at Weymouth from 1996-1998. And since 2000, they have been held every other year. Most recently, in October 2010, five writers were honored, including Walter Hines Page, W.J. Cash (both deceased) and living writers Allan Gurganus, Robert Morgan and Samm-Art Williams.
The history of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame is foremost a history of Sam Ragan, who was responsible for it — a person who dedicated his life to literature.
It also celebrates the incredible literary legacy we have inherited from so many writers who have gone before us, and it charges us to become a legacy for the next generations.
Marsha Warren, of Chapel Hill, has been active in many cultural organizations, including the Paul Green Founda-tion, the WeymouthCenter for the Arts and Humanities and the the North Carolina Writers’ Network.
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