Often called North Carolina’s “literary godfather,” Sam Ragan (1915-1996) was for more than fifty years one of his state’s leading men of letters. The newspaper editor who gave the young David Brinkley his first job as a reporter for the Wilmington Star was also North Carolina Poet Laureate. As North Carolina’s first secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources and first chairman of the North Carolina Arts Council, Sam Ragan helped make the arts in his home state accessible to a wide, varied audience, helping to establish the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Visiting Artists Program, and dozens of other services for the arts and people of the state.
Born in Granville County, Sam Ragan began writing poetry in grade school. By the time he was a college student at Atlantic Christian (Barton) College, he knew he wanted to be a newspaperman. Following a short stint in Texas at the San Antonio Evening News, Ragan returned to North Carolina in 1941 to a job as state editor for the Raleigh News and Observer where, in 1948, he began writing his trademark column, “Southern Accent.” Except for three years of service in the army, he remained at the News and Observer as executive and managing editor until 1968, when he purchased the Southern Pines weekly newspaper, The Pilot, from Katharine Boyd. He stayed at The Pilot until his death, continuing to write “Southern Accent,” a column which featured poems, anecdotes, and literary criticism, along with social commentary. “Southern Accent,” the oldest and longest running column in the United States, was read in forty-three states and twenty-four foreign countries.
On his first newspaper job, Sam Ragan met Marjorie Usher when both were young reporters rushing to cover the same bank robbery for rival newspapers. They were married for fifty-six years and had two daughters, Nancy and Talmadge.
Sam Ragan’s cultural contributions are legendary. He taught writing and journalism at Sandhills Community College, St. Andrews Presbyterian College, and North Carolina State University and served on the boards of the N. C. Literary and Historical Association, the N. C. Symphony Society, Roanoke Island Historical Association, N. C. Museum of History Associates, North Carolina Writers’ Network, and the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities. Ragan is a recipient of the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts; the Roanoke-Chowan, Parker and Morrison Awards; the North Caroliniana Society Award; and was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. He received honorary doctorates from St. Andrews College, Atlantic Christian (Barton) College, UNC-Chapel Hill and Methodist College.
Sam Ragan the poet published six collections of verse, two of which were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, and four works of nonfiction. Tom Wicker said that his poetry was “sensitive to the seasons of life, the sureties and contradictions of living, the elements in which we exist. And it could only have been written out of a Tar Heel’s sense of place.” When Governor Jim Hunt appointed Sam Ragan North Carolina Poet Laureate in 1982, Ragan responded, “I don’t know that I’ll write poetry on demand, but I would like to encourage North Carolinians to read and write poetry. I’ll be happy to do that.” Which he did, just as he always had done, and would continue to do until his death.
Watch Ron Bayes read “In a Field Hosptial in Okinawa” at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC, 2010:
(Courtesy of Cari Grindem-Corbett)
View photographs from the 2011 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, courtesy of the North Carolina Poetry Society.
View a list of winners of the The Sam Ragan Fine Arts Awards (St. Andrews University).