Janet Dittlinger Ragsdale, real estate investor and one of the original founders of the Austin Humane Society, passed away at the age of 92 on the 30th of March, after a brief illness. She was the wife of noted Big Bend historian and Big Band leader Ken Ragsdale, who preceded her in death in 2015. Apart from a brief time in San Diego during the war and later in Dallas, she was a life-long resident of Austin.
Born a blue-blood Texan, she was a Daughter of the Republic of Texas, a title earned through being a direct descendent of Rueben Hornsby, the first surveyor of Austin and one of the "Old 300", the original three hundred American families brought to settle Texas by Stephen F. Austin in 1825.
Born in 1924 as the youngest of three children to Louella Jones and Nicholas Dittlinger, Janet's mother unexpectedly died shortly after her childbirth. The father quickly gave up custody of her and her two brothers, Wesley and Bill, to their aunt and uncle Minnie and Arthur Jones of Hornsby Bend, a noted cattle rancher and veteran of the Chisholm Trail cattle drives. They gave these children a perfect home filled with love and devotion
As a young girl, Janet contracted polio, forcing her to become bed-ridden for several months. Faced with the prospect of being wheelchair-bound, she diligently forced herself to daily rigorous exercises to prevent a life of immobility. This life-altering experience of the disease and her adaptability were to shape Janet's character in overcoming all challenges faced in her life.
While a student at Hornsby-Dunlap Elementary School, her best friend, Edith Koerlin, relayed that Janet began to demonstrate a natural talent for mathematics, a foreshadowing of her business acumen later in life. Her experience at Manor High School, as someone with polio, exposed her to the disturbing reality of discrimination when she was not allowed to participate in the school choir or sports, as her disability would be an embarrassment to them. Even some of her teachers in her academic studies were loathe to recognize her obvious intelligence. This experience began her life-long devotion to eliminating barriers, both physical and social, for people with disabilities. In 1992, Governor Ann Richard paid her the highest honor in making her a member of the Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, which she deeply cherished.
After graduating high school, and with the war with Japan just beginning, she moved to San Diego to be near friends who were stationed at the naval base. For those few months in the early '40s, she began to experience life for the first time outside of Texas, developing a love for the city she was to return for many times afterwards.
After her brief residence on the West coast, she returned to Austin and became employed as a cashier at the old Capitol Theatre on W. 5th Street. It was there she met her life-long love, Kenneth Ragsdale, who was the assistant manager. After a short courtship, they eloped and were married by a local minister. This loving union would last 71 years until his death. They lived for a brief time in Dallas while Kenneth was working for Braniff Airlines and Janet, in turn, raised a lively birddog named Joe. They soon returned to Austin after a couple of years so Kenneth could begin teaching music in the public schools.
From the time she was a little girl, Janet was an ardent animal lover, surrounding herself with stray cats and dogs. Because of her own experience of hardship, she felt a strong empathy for the suffering of animals. Her commitment to animal welfare led to her and close friends to found the Austin Humane Society in the 1950s. She was instrumental in securing the initial funding provided by the Ziller family, to build the first shelter. Later, in the 1990s, Janet became a sponsor for Animal Trustees of Austin, a continuation of her devotion to animals, many small, all great.
She encountered yet another of life's challenges when both of her two young children were found to be profoundly hearing impaired. Determined to make a difference in their lives, she along with other mothers of deaf children helped to establish a speech and hearing center in Austin modeled after the John Tracy Clinic, (in California), founded by the wife of actor Spencer Tracy, and named for their deaf son. (Many hours were devoted to driving the long distance from Hornsby Bend to Casis Elementary School for the opportunity for Jeffrey to participate in one of the first educational mainstream projects in the U.S. where he received intensive speech and lipreading training. Additionally, she ensured that both children attended the UT Speech and Hearing Center during these years for further services. Both Keith and Jeffrey have reaped the rewards of such diligent devotion.)
Also Janet became famous among friends for her culinary skills, especially with tacos. Visioning a possibility that people would buy tacos from street stands, she was discouraged and ridiculed to pursue such an endeavor. History proved her as a visionary, with the advent of fast-food franchises, decades later.
One of her most successful achievements in life was in real estate. During 40 years in the business, she acquired numerous properties, located in Central Austin. She was a tireless worker, doing most of the remodeling by herself along with a changing cast of devoted workers. Despite numerous examples of resistance and disrespect from the male-dominated world of property owners and realtors, she was never deterred from realizing her dream.
In the mid-1970s, because of her ability to sustain and prosper the family financially, her husband, Kenneth, was able to retire from the University of Texas to author many books on Texas history. Their relationship was, in many ways, a prototype of a new alternative style of the contemporary family: he being the stay-at-home husband, free to continue writing as well as conducting the Ken Ragsdale Orchestra while Janet was out in the world as successful breadwinner, a situation both he and Janet whole-heartedly endorsed.
She was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, particularly with Austin theatre, and local artists and musicians. In later life, she pursued her own talent as a painter.
Janet was a life-long, proud Texas Democrat, working at various moments in her life in campaigns for JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Jim Hightower, Lloyd Doggett and others. A strong advocate for liberal causes, in particular, women's rights, both personal and professional, she founded one of the first women's groups in Austin during the early '70s, made up of women with connections to the University of Texas and U.T. Press.
Both Janet and Kenneth always practiced a healthy lifestyle. As recently as three weeks ago, Janet was working out in a gym twice-weekly with her personal trainer. Both Kenneth and Janet believed this contributed to their longevity and to the quality of life they were able to sustain to the very end. They were the subject of an article published in May 2013 in the 'Fit Folks' section of the Austin American-Statesman about their inspiring story.
Both she and Kenneth were fortunate to be able to stay in their home to the end of their lives with the help and assistance of their many beloved caregivers, Tiffany Livingston - Head Caregiver, Lois Miles, and with additional devotion by Shelly Goodman, Charisse Baker, Pam Goodman, Kenyatta Hutcherson and many others. She also held dear the assistance provided by Salvador Martinez and sister Juanita Martinez through the years.
And a most grateful thank you to her special friends who visited faithfully and brought smiles and laughter in her waning days - Ted Bose, Norman Daily, Elaine Hennessy, Edith Frost, Ben Livingston, J. C. Martin, Andy Thomas, Betty Jo Hurd, Walter Hutchinson, Bill Campbell, David Falconer, Allison Rossiter and her niece, Carol Ann Dittlinger Ideker. A special thanks also to Dr. Rodolfo Uriegas and Irma for their excellent and compassionate care these past few years.
She is survived by her two children Keith Ellen Ragsdale and Jeffrey Mark Ragsdale, her two nieces, Carol Ann Dittlinger Ideker, and Patty Dittlinger Krumm and nephew, Stephen Dittlinger. She was preceded in death by the love of her life of 71 years, Kenneth Ragsdale and her two brothers, Bill and Wesley Dittlinger.
Last but not least, she leaves behind Dolly, her cherished canine companion.
A Celebration of Life for Janet will be held on Sunday, April 30th, 2017 from 4-6 pm at the Trinity United Methodist Church, located at 4001 Speedway in Austin. Music will be provided by the Ken Ragsdale Orchestra. Food and refreshments will be provided by her dear friend Ted Bose.
Donations may be made to the Austin Humane Society, Emancipets, Austin Pets Alive or any other charity of choice.