They Never Called Him Sam
Fifteen years after his death, Sam Ragan — writer, editor, publisher, N.C. poet laureate — still looms larger than life.
This life will be celebrated by friends, colleagues, admirers, the public and daughter Talmadge Ragan at 5 p.m. Friday, May 13, at Weymouth Center for Arts and Humanities, which he helped create. It was here, in 1996, that he helped institute the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Its first inductees included internationally acclaimed James Boyd, Thomas Wolfe, “O. Henry” and Inglis Fletcher.
In the run-up to this event, Pilot associates explored the facts and legends of Ragan’s life.
Born in Berea in 1915, Ragan graduated from Atlantic Christian College, worked as a reporter in Wilmington, where he mentored NBC newsman David Brinkley, then served as executive editor of the the Raleigh News & Observer for 20 years before purchasing The Pilot in 1968.
Ragan’s obituary in The New York Times described him as “A Southern gentleman who looked and behaved every inch the part,” including floppy fedora and oversized bow tie.
His literary awards fill pages. His influence on individuals endures, as with Ruth Moose, of Pittsboro, poet and creative writing teacher.
“I keep his poem (titled ‘On Writing a Poem’) Scotch-taped next to my computer,” she says. “I read it whenever I get stuck.”
Ragan recognized budding talent, and published some of Moose’s early poetry in The News & Observer.
“That meant so much,” she says.
Florence Gilkeson, a senior writer for The Pilot, worked with Ragan for 20 years.
“He was a romantic, and there’s nothing romantic about computers,” Gilkeson says of Ragan’s refusal to touch anything but a manual typewriter.
She adds that Ragan was very broadminded and supportive of his writers, but at the same time demanding.
“Everything had to be comprehensive, factual, in simple language,” says Gilkeson.
Ragan was famous for his N&O column “Southern Accent,” which he continued in The Pilot. He always wrote pre-New Year’s poem, cleverly rhymed, greeting a variety of people.
“It was impossible not to love him,” she says. “He was a marvelous newspaperman and friend.”
Faye Dasen, now The Pilot’s features editor, came to work for Ragan in 1992.
“I grew up reading ‘Southern Accent,’” Dasen says. Therefore, working as Ragan’s secretary was an exciting chance “to be involved in the literary aspects of his life.”
Dasen remembers a call from the producer of “20/20,” who wanted Ragan to appear on a tribute to NBC/ABC newscaster David Brinkley held in Wilmington.
“He was almost 80,” Dasen says. “But I told him he had to go — and that I’d drive him.” At lunch, Dasen met Brinkley and newsman Sam Donaldson. She also recalls how Ragan chewed peppermints to help stop smoking: “You could hear him coming, shaking them in his pocket.
“Ragan left a legacy in that The Pilot is a community newspaper,” Dasen says. “Everything was considered important, even when somebody brought in a giant squash.”
Ragan’s accessibility was legend, Dasen continues; he made time for everybody. She calls his death “the end of an era.”
Lois Holt, Pilot columnist and Ragan-anointed president of Weymouth Center met Ragan when she attended a class at N.C. State University.
“I met Mr. Ragan (couldn’t call him Sam) in Raleigh, when I was just starting to write poetry,” Holt says. “I wasn’t prepared to be critiqued or praised. He was a master at encouraging someone; he knew how to bring out your best points, whether you were an established writer or trembled just to get up and read.”
Weymouth was falling apart when Ragan envisioned the center, Holt recalls.
“He asked me to be president because I was the only poet he ever met who had an accountant’s mind,” she says.
His daughter, Talmadge Ragan, an actress and Washington speech writer, who recently moved back to North Carolina, was very close to her parents.
“Marsha Warren contacted me about the piece, which was written after he died,” she says. “She thought I could add some personal comments to tie the poems together — comments only my father would make.”
Like the butterfly Sam Ragan noticed outside his hospital window that reminded him of one that appeared, mysteriously, on the deck of a ship far from shore.
“The butterfly is a symbol or resurrection,” Talmadge Ragan says. “It gave him a comforting feeling.”
Steve Bouser, author and editor of The Pilot, will read the part of Sam Ragan during Friday’s event.
“I sat at the same table with Sam at press association meetings, but I never knew him in his natural habitat.”
Bouser became editor after Ragan’s death.
“He was such a legend, with his shock of white hair. He deserves a special place of honor,” Bouser says.
But, Bouser, of similar hair, adds, “Nobody who ever worked with him called him Sam.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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