Literary Hall of Fame a Final Chapter for Sam Ragan
BY FAYE DASEN
"Nothing ever got past Sam - nothing that had anything to do with encouraging writing and reading in the Old North State," says Marsha Warren.
Warren, former executive director of the N.C. Writers' Network, and director of the Paul Green Foundation, was a longtime friend of Sam Ragan, who served as the state's poet laureate and who was also the owner, publisher and editor of The Pilot.
It all began when the Library of Congress established the Center of the Book concept in 1977. Its mission was "to stimulate public interest in books, reading and libraries and to encourage the study of books and print culture." In 1984, the Library began setting up state affiliates, most of which were not individual physical locations, but programs within state institutions.
"But Sam wanted a stand-alone Center - and he wanted it in Southern Pines," says Warren.
Ragan also had the notion that associated with the Center, North Carolina should have the first-in-the-country State Literary Hall of Fame.
Meetings were held in Raleigh and Southern Pines. A proposal was drawn up and presented to the town council of Southern Pines and approved. The plan was for the N.C. Center for the Book and the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame to be housed in the old library building on Broad Street in Southern Pines. North Carolina was officially approved to be a Center for the Book in 1992.
"All that had to happen now was to wait for the new library to be built, thus vacating the charming old library on the main street of town, and get the legislature to support the establishment of the Center," says Warren.
Ultimately, the Center for the Book would stay in Raleigh as a program of the State Library. But the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame would become part of the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in James Boyd's former study.
Since 1977, the Georgian mansion has been a nonprofit arts center.
"We started our preparations to refurbish the study to be ready in time for the 1996 induction ceremony on May 18," says Warren.
Betty Ray McCain kept her promise to find funding, and the N.C. Writers' Network was selected to administer the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
"Sam's health was failing fast as we approached the 1996 induction ceremony," says Warren. "He was continuing to work with the committee to select the first 15 inductees - so difficult with North Carolina's many fine writers."
That first group of inductees, all deceased, included: 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.
"Sam was still thinking he could do one of the introductions ... and then it became apparent he wouldn't even be able to attend," says Warren.
Ragan died 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," says Warren.
The next year, Sam Ragan was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame. Since 1996, 50 writers have been so honored.
"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," says Warren. "It also celebrates the incredible literary legacy we have inherited from so many writers who have gone before us, and it charges us to continue that legacy for the next generations."
Contact Faye Dasen at (910) 693-2475 or fdasen@the pilot.com.
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