Prominent political journalist Jim Ragsdale, 64, dies of pancreatic cancer

Photo by Julie Kramer
Jim Ragsdale, center, shown following a January taping of "Almanac." Behind, left to right: MinnPost's Briana Bierschbach, Star Tribune's Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, TPT's Eric Eskola, KSTP-TV's Tom Hauser, AP's Brian Bakst and TPT's Cathy Wurzer.

Jim Ragsdale, a well-respected and much-liked writer-reporter best known for covering local and state politics, has died at age 64 of pancreatic cancer.

During his career he worked at the Star Tribune as a reporter, then for 30 years at the Pioneer Press as a reporter and editorial writer before returning to the Strib three years ago. He also worked briefly at Minnesota Public Radio.

He wrote clues for the Winter Carnival medallion hunt, sponsored by the St. Paul paper, and he was a frequent guest monologist on public television’s “Almanac” weekly political show.

He was diagnosed with cancer last year.

His years in the trenches at the state Capitol included the Gov. Jesse Ventura era, which found him digging deeply into the governor’s politics and life.

In a 2011, Ragsdale moved from the Pioneer Press back to the Strib’s Capitol bureau. At the time, MinnPost’s David Brauer wrote that Rags had been cited by City Pages in 2002 as the best political reporter, noting:

Along with providing a revealing glimpse into Ventura’s past, a good number of amusing anecdotes, and a cogent analysis of his term as governor, [Ragsdale’s] “A.K.A. Jesse Ventura” pinned the Body down on the elusive question of his military service. (Did our SEAL-cap-wearing, tough-talking governor ever actually hunt man, as he once famously suggested? The short answer: no).

Such reporting, of course, endeared him to readers and colleagues, but not always with the governor.

Mike Burbach, Pioneer Press editor and vice president, who worked with Ragsdale on the editorial page, called Ragsdale “a generous guy, curious and bright.” He was well-read, “always informing himself out of honest-to-goodness curiosity.”

And he was a really nice guy, Burbach said: “Jim could have almost any discussion with almost anybody at almost any depth of  intensity, and everyone would come out of it feeling good.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he had lunch with Ragsdale in recent weeks. “He ordered a beer, and said: ‘Why not?'” Coleman said.

“He was such a warm guy, that even when he was covering you, you were happy to talk to him,” the mayor said.

Cathy Wurzer, co-host of “Almanac,” called Ragsdale “a wonderful writer and wickedly funny.”

Brendan Henehan, Almanac producer, said Ragsdale regularly touched on the issues of friendship and hope in his clever, well-crafted monologues over the past decade.

“He could write in his sleep,” Henehan said.

While he often wrote and performed humorous pieces, he also dug into bigger issues, like the falling of the I35 bridge, Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Fort Hood.

“And he was genuinely a sweet, and you can’t say that about many veteran political reporters,” Henehan said. “There wasn’t that cynicism that often creeps in. Oh, he could pretend to be cynical, but at the end of the day, you knew he was dwelling on the other side of that divide.”

Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement Tuesday: “Today, we mourn the loss of a great reporter and a wonderful man. I extend my deepest condolences to Jim’s family, friends, and colleagues at this very difficult time.”

Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune, who worked alongside Ragsdale at the beginning and end of his career, and competed with him for 30 years in the middle, said he was a great guy and great competitor.

“He always served the readers the best he could, and he always served them very, very well,” she said.

Ragsdale is survived by his wife, Mary, and children Ben, Ann and Catherine. A visitation will be held Monday, from 4 to 8 p.m., at the Washburn-McReavy Funeral Home, Nokomis Park Chapel in Minneapolis. The service is Tuesday, 11 a.m., at the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community in Minneapolis.

Jim Ragsdale from a January 3, 2014, episode of “Almanac” discussing his tough diagnosis and the importance of everyday moments.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/18/2014 - 02:13 pm.

    Sad news…

    He was a class act. I’m glad I had a chance to meet him.

  2. Submitted by jason myron on 11/19/2014 - 07:12 am.

    It sounds like

    Mr. Ragsdale faced his diagnosis with the same dignity in which he conducted his life. My sincere condolences to his friends and family.

  3. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/19/2014 - 10:16 am.

    They just don’t make ’em like Rags any more. A true journalist in an era when anyone with a cell phone camera, a Twitter account and a grudge can fancy themselves the next Dan Rather. He, and his kind, will be missed.

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