Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Opportunity, A Tribute

Wilmott Proviso Ragsdale
(August 19, 1911 - January 16, 2009)

I wrote this essay in response to a contest prompt. The one who can best explain their reasons for wanting this prize (a 10 day trip to Africa with New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof) is the winner. It seemed the proper time to mull through some feelings about the recent death of an elderly friend of mine, Rags.

"I used to drive an old man around. He was modest and simple. He wouldn't step outside without a cap, a pair of loafers, and a kerchief in his breast pocket. He was that kind of an old man. Always put together, always a gentleman, and always abundantly kind. Wherever I drove him, somebody inevitably knew him; sometimes personally or simply as the great writer, journalist, and teacher that he was. While I drove or walked with him through grocery aisles he told me stories. He told me that his first car was a Ford Model T and that he remembered San Francisco, my hometown, before there was a Golden Gate Bridge. He told me what it was like working behind the scenes in the Oval Office under Roosevelt and how strange it was to see that strong man carried like a babe in the arms of a secret service officer. He told me about the scentless roses of Cairo and heat in India and how he had hunted a tiger there and was glad, though much later, that he had failed to kill “such a beautiful creature.” He told me many things. But the one thing he repeated to me often was that I should write always and read even more, even as his own eyes failed and no longer permitted him to do so.

While he was still alive I won a university fiction competition named for Esther Wagner who had been a professor and writer at the University of Puget Sound. When he learned of my achievement he bought me a bouquet of sunflowers and chowder to share while we chatted at his friend Rosa’s house.

He said between sips of soup, “Actually, Rosa and I used to spend a lot of time with Esther.”
“Yes,” Rosa interjected. “She used to sit right there, where you are sitting and eat soup with me, sometimes every week!”

That was when my writing became more deeply connected to me, through this man who had inspired me through a life he led many years ago.

His name was Wilmott Ragsdale (Rags) – the only journalism professor ever to teach at the University of Puget Sound, a veteran and war correspondent of WWII who reported on the Normandy invasion for Time Magazine, and writer for the Tacoma News Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.

I read this great man my prose and he told me never to stop. He told me to be a journalist, and while journalism is a field little known to me I feel that it is within my grasp because of him. I received an interdisciplinary grant last summer of $3000 to do my own writing project, at which time I wrote a collection of autobiographical stories. At the end of my project I did a reading of my work. Rags couldn’t make it because he had a stroke, so I read them to him while he was in the hospital. His earnest interest in my creative development has motivated me continuously throughout the time that I have known him and even after. Going to Africa and writing about it would be a grand accomplishment for me but it would also be a tribute to Rags, whom I have never been able to thank for his friendship, mentorship and steadfast belief in me."

After Rags passed away I learned the full meaning of his unique name in the most unlikeliest of places. I was in one of my classes and close to dozing in the middle of a lecture about the Mexican War, when his name seemed to bellow from my professor's mouth. He was talking about the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, a campaign against slavery advancing westward as new territories were conquered by the United States. Here is a small blurb about the Proviso from

"The Wilmot Proviso was introduced on August 8, 1846, in the United States House of Representatives as a rider on a $2 million appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican-American War. The intent of the proviso, submitted by Democratic Congressman David Wilmot, was to prevent the introduction of slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. The proviso did not pass in this session or in any other session when it was re-introduced over the course of the next several years, but many consider it as one of the first events on the long slide to secession and Civil War which would accelerate through the 1850s." 

The remainder of this article can be found at this url:

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