Jim Ragsdale, who delivered politics to Twin Cities newspaper readers for more than three decades with unfailing probity, a graceful pen and a knowing wink, died Tuesday after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 64.
Ragsdale, a former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter and editorialist who had worked for the Star Tribune since 2011, was named Minnesota Journalist of the Year last spring by the Society of Professional Journalists — a recognition of lifetime achievement that ranged from award-winning reporting on former Gov. Jesse Ventura to whimsical monologues on TPT's "Almanac" news show.
"He graced both of the biggest newsrooms in the Twin Cities with his soulful stories, his fearless commitment to get at the truth of things, and his generous spirit,'' said Star Tribune Editor Rene Sanchez.
For years Ragsdale, with his distinctive thick white mane of hair and unruly eyebrows, was a fixture at the State Capitol, firing questions at governors and charming the servers in the cafeteria.
"We mourn the loss of a great reporter and a wonderful man," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement Tuesday. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Tuesday that when Ragsdale covered an event, "somewhere between the endless speeches and the politicking there was always time for a few good stories and some laughs."
Laughter was at the heart of Ragsdale's life at home as well, said his daughter, Ann Ragsdale, of New York City.
"He saw the good in everything and he made every challenge an adventure," she said. "I just remember always feeling like he was born with a smile."
John Wodele, who as Ventura's spokesman fenced with Ragsdale and later became a good friend, said that he brought a sensitivity to his reporting that often elevated it to "great journalism." Ragsdale's Pioneer Press series on Ventura in 2002, he said, ranks as perhaps the most comprehensive and insightful analysis of the former governor.
Ragsdale was a native Californian who plunged enthusiastically (if not always successfully) into Minnesota's boat and fishing culture, and a serious journalist who on the side wrote children's musicals, a screenplay and an unpublished book.
"He also was a talented performer," said Aron Kahn, a friend and former Pioneer Press colleague. "He wore imitation chest hair, jangling gold chains and sprayed his hair black to become lounge comedian Vic Vegas during local variety shows."
Star Tribune reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger, who worked with Ragsdale at both Twin Cities papers, said that he "squeezed as much joy as he possibly could out of this year" since being diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2013. He traveled with his wife, Mary, escorted Ann down the aisle at her wedding, continued his volunteer work with the disabled and kept careful score at Twins' games at Target Field.
"He made us all better," Stassen-Berger said. "He saw the joy in life, and he could also rant with the best of them. And he loved to write. He could put his fingers on the keyboard and they would fly, and poetry would come out."
Ragsdale, who grew up in Los Angeles, arrived in the Twin Cities in 1981 after working as a reporter in West Virginia. He was laid off in a merger shortly after joining the Minneapolis Tribune, and worked for two years at Minnesota Public Radio.
In 1984 he joined the Pioneer Press, where he remained for nearly 30 years and covered several beats. But he spent the most time at the newspaper's Capitol bureau, covering three administrations.
"He was a pro's pro as far as being a journalist," said Eric Eskola, co-host of "Almanac" who worked at the Capitol alongside Ragsdale as a reporter for WCCO Radio. "He never got cynical, which is easy to do in covering politics."
'He knew everybody'
In 2006 Ragsdale moved to the Pioneer Press' editorial page, where he started the popular Friday Opinuendo column.
"He knew everybody," said Pioneer Press Editor Mike Burbach, who was then the editorial page editor. "And he had the ability, and it's not that common, to get into almost any kind of a conversation with almost anybody, mix it up and come out on the other end with warmth and generosity."
Ragsdale, who lived in Minneapolis, returned to the Star Tribune three years ago. "Jim was a consummate reporter but he was so much more than that — gracious, intelligent, funny as hell," political editor Patricia Lopez said.
Earlier this year, Ragsdale told the "Almanac" TV audience that he had cancer.
"My doctor told me days are precious with this diagnosis. Fine, but what do we do with the present?" he said.
"I seem to want what I have, but more of it, more of the life-giving elixir of family and friends and even useful work. Like Jimmy Stewart said to his guardian angel … 'I want my life back!' The perfect present that we seek may be what is already crowded into this very moment. I'll try not to miss it."
In addition to his wife and daughter Ann, Ragsdale is survived by a son, Ben, and daughter, Catherine, both of Minneapolis; a brother, Rick, of Huntington Beach, Calif.; and three sisters, Sheila Smith, of San Marino, Calif., Debbie Byers, of Phoenix, and Tricia Hillgren, of London.
Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Washburn-McReavy Nokomis Park Chapel, 1838 E. Minnehaha Pkwy., Minneapolis, with services at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, 2201 1st Av. S., Minneapolis.
Memorials are preferred to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or Twin Cities Public Television.