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Ken Ragsdale

Obituary for Ken Ragsdale

September 3, 1917 - June 17, 2015
Austin, Texas | Age 97

Ken Ragsdale


Ken Ragsdale, noted Big Bend historian, author and Big Band leader, passed away at his home in Austin on Wednesday, June 17th. He was 97 years old.

His first book, "Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company", 1976, Texas A&M University Press, was the first major book written about Terlingua and the Big Bend area of Texas and is still considered the primary historical study of the region. He wrote again about the area with his second book "Wings over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend", 1984, University of Texas Press, covering the history of aviation border patrol by the U.S. Air Calvary in the early part of the 20th century. His third book about the area,"Big Bend Country: Land of the Unexpected", Texas A&M Press. 1998, is his final summing up of his personal experiences and a portrait of the larger-than-like characters, like Hallie Stillwell and Lucia Rede Madrid, that gave the region its special character.

Due to a chance encounter in 1966, Ragsdale was also instrumental in recognizing the historical significance of the photography of Alpine resident W. D. Smithers. After finishing up a lengthy and extensive interview with Smithers at his home during research for the Terlingua book, Ragsdale thanked his host and got up to leave. Smithers asked him if, before he left, he would care to look at some boxes of photos he had taken over the years of the Big Bend landscape, many of which were taken from the cockpit of an airplane. Not wishing to insult his host, Ragsdale, exhausted, reluctantly agreed. What he saw next, rows and rows of more than 9,000 rare photographs chronicling an earlier time of West Texas, convinced him he'd stumbled onto something big, historically speaking. Rushing back to the University of Texas and going straight to the top, he pleaded personally with the legendary Chancellor Harry Ransom to have the University purchase the entire Smithers collection for the esteemed Humanities Research Center. Ransom agreed and Ragsdale was able to go back to Smithers to tell him the good news, not just the healthy financial terms he was able to get but, more importantly, of the historical recognition that his cache of rare photographs deserved and was finally receiving. The both of them remained close friends, for decades afterwards, until Smithers's passing in 1981.

Ragsdale also wrote two other books unrelated to the Big Bend. "The Year America Discovered Texas: Centennial '36", 2000, Texas A&M Press, is a history of the Texas Centennial and Exposition that occurred in Dallas in 1936, and later became the site of the State Fair of Texas. For him, this was personal since he attended the Exposition as a young man. Incidentally, there he met one of his musical heroes, Tommy Dorsey, who invited the enthused young Kenneth to attend a performance he and his orchestra was broadcasting over the radio.

With his final book, "Austin, Cleared for Takeoff: Aviators, Businessmen and the Growth of an American City", 2004, University of Texas Press. Ragsdale was able to indulge his boyhood fascination for aviation by examining in an historical context how commercial and general aviation contributed to the growth of an American city, Austin, in a model pattern that repeated itself throughout the country.

Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale was born in Troup, Texas, the only child of William and Ruth Ragsdale. His father died when he was five and he was raised by his mother, a schoolteacher. As a boy, he discovered a passion for music that was to last his lifetime. Wanting to play an instrument, he made a violin from a cigar box kit. Later, after getting a trumpet, he was able to convince the mailman, an amateur musician, to give him daily trumpet lessons out by the mailbox. Already by this point, he knew music was to be his entree to a more creative life.

As a teen, he contracted osteomyelitis, a bone disease, that landed him in area hospitals for months at a time. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by doctors and medical professionals, who were highly educated, and who did not share the provincial attitudes of the times. Recognizing that this adversity was an opportunity, Ragsdale viewed his hospitalization as the transformative event of his young life, showing him there was a better way, through education, perseverance and the caring service of people. He was also deeply impacted by the compassionate care of the nurses for lonely and sick teenager. Keith, his daughter, followed in this profession.

That led him to attend Tyler Jr. College in the mid-1930s for two years. (In 2008, Ragsdale was awarded Distinguished Alumnus of the Year from the college.) After finishing at Tyler, he came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1938 to earn a B.A. and Masters in Music. His primary instruments were the English horn and the viola, which he played as a member of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. During this time he discovered a talent for writing when he wrote music reviews for the Daily Texan, the school newspaper, where he was a colleague of Walter Cronkite, among others.

After graduating U.T., he worked as assistant manager of the Capitol Theatre in Austin. It was there he met his future wife, Janet Dittlinger, who was the cashier. Late one night, after closing the theatre, they decided they would get married. After a minister friend failed to show up to open up the doors at his church (and who was later found to still be drinking at the neighborhood bar), the taxi driver then drove Ken and his bride, Janet,to a certain minister he knew of that he insisted would be able to perform the ceremonies. Though well after midnight, they were able to rouse the minister at his home and persuade him to marry them, even while dressed in his house robe. (For many years afterwards, there was humorous speculation as to the legitimacy of the marriage but they were able to resolve this question by renewing their vows in 2003 on the occasion of their 60th anniversary, officiated by their daughter Keith, an ordained minister)

In 1944, to pursue his love of aviation, Ken and Janet moved to Dallas where he worked in route development for Braniff Airlines, However, after a few years and unsatisfied with the prospects offered in the airline business, plus a renewed interest in music, they returned to Austin where he began working for the Austin Independent School District (AISD) in the music education department. While there, Ragsdale created a music program for elementary school students to introduce them to music and musical instruments. This took him city-wide, as the sole band director, to every elementary school in Austin, including predominantly African-American schools where Ragsdale was often the only white teacher on staff.

Also at this time, he formed his own Big Band, the Ken Ragsdale Orchestra. As the leader, he played the baritone saxophone and clarinet. He also did a short stint in the late '50s as assistant orchestra director at Austin High School. Ragsdale was hired as full-time band director for University Jr. High School, located on the U.T. Campus. Later, he was hired to lead the Pearce Jr. High band, winning numerous band awards and producing accomplished music students. He taught there until 1964 when he retired from teaching.

That year, his insatiable curiosity led him back to UT for yet another advanced degree. Texas history had always been overriding passion of his ever since he read "Coronado's Children" by J. Frank Dobie as a teenager. With the support of his wife, Ragsdale went to the History Department at U.T. to apply for the doctorate's program. However, being the ripe old age of 48, he was rejected due to the fact he was "too old". Hearing this, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian and director of the newly-formed American Civilization department, William Goetzmann, personally invited Ragsdale to pursue a doctorate in his new department instead. It was here Ragsdale discovered the story of Terlingua and the larger Big Bend area. Sensing this to be a field ripe for study, he decided that it should become the subject of his dissertation and first book. While working towards the degree, he also began working part-time as a field director at the Texas State Historical Association located on campus in Battle Hall. In this capacity, he was instrumental in creating a railroad-car museum commemorating the Chisolm Trail that traveled all over the U.S. and abroad. It was also there on August 1st, 1966, while speaking to a colleague in the hallway before going out to lunch that he heard the first shots of gunfire from Charles Whitman, high up on the U.T. tower next door.

After receiving his doctorate degree in 1976, Ragsdale continued to work for the TSHA for another ten years before retiring to pursue research and writing, made possible by the business acumen shown by his wife, Janet, who was able to sustain and prosper the family financially through wise real estate investments. Their relationship was, in many ways, a prototype of a new alternative style of the contemporary family: he being the stay-at-home husband and dad, free to continue writing while Janet was out in the world as successful breadwinner, a situation both he and Janet whole-heartedly endorsed.

Yet, though he continued to write books, his first love of music never waned. Already into his 70s, he revived the Ken Ragsdale Orchestra, where they still continue to play to this day.

In 1993, for his 76th birthday, he received a single flying lesson from his family as a gift, allowing him to get 'behind the yoke' for the first time in his life. Hooked, he decided to pursue a flying license, unheard for someone his age. When he finally earned his 'ticket' at the age of 80, he was one of only a handful of pilots in aviation history to have earned a pilot's license at that age.

After turning 90, he decided to take up art lessons again, specifically drawing. However, this was not the first time he tried his hand in the visual arts. In the 1950s, he had a darkroom installed in his house so he could develop photographs taken with his beloved Rolleiflex medium-format camera.

As recently as March of this year, he and his wife were able to work out in a gym twice-weekly with Rusty Gregory, their personal trainer. Ragsdale strongly felt this was the reason for his longevity and for the quality of life he was able to sustain until the very end. There is even an article published in May, 2013 in the Fit Folks section of the Austin American-Statesman about Ken and Janet's inspiring story.

From the time as a young boy with his favorite cat, Napoleon, to the present day with Kitty Winston and puppy dog Dolly and innumerable pets in between, both he and Janet (one of the original founders of the Austin Humane Society) were life-long animal lovers. The Ragsdale household was always populated by four-legged creatures: many small, all great.

Because of Janet's wise investments, both Ken and his wife were able to stay in their home with the help and assistance of their many beloved caregivers, particularly Tiffany Livingston, Lois Miles (Ken's favorite!), Shelly Goodman, and Nikki Offutt in addition to the daily personal assistance provided by Salvador Martinez and sister Juanita Martinez.

He was the most incredibly loving husband, father and friend that anyone could possibly have. He is deeply missed.

Ragsdale is survived by his wife of 72 years, Janet Dittlinger Ragsdale, 90, his daughter, Keith Ellen Ragsdale (nursing administrator and teacher), 65 and his son, Jeffrey Ragsdale (artist and musician), 61.

A memorial celebrating Ken's life was held on July 11th at the Trinity United Methodist Church, 4001 Speedway, Austin, (512) 459-5835. The Ken Ragsdale Orchestra provided music for the occasion. Guest speakers included J.C. Martin, Corky Robinson, Ben Livingston and many others.

For those wishing to make donations at the elementary, middle and high school level: The Kenneth Ragsdale Memorial Fund (A.I.S.D.)
These funds will be used towards the acquisition of much-needed musical instruments for underprivileged students.
Mail your donations to:
Austin I.S.D./Fine Arts Department
Attn. Mark Gurgel
1111 West 6th Street
Austin, TX 78703

For those wishing to make donations at the college level: The Kenneth B. Ragsdale Memorial Music Scholarship (University of Texas at Austin).
These funds will be used for an endowment in Ken's name, created to last in perpetuity.
Mail donations to:
Raine Munkens, Development Office,
University of Texas at Austin, Butler School of Music
2406 Robert Dedman Dr., E-3100
Austin, TX 78712

Obituary and memorial guestbook available online at



Daddy, this is Keith your daughter or more fondly referred to as Keithy Kat by you.

You were a father of abounding love. You were the antithesis of what your early life was which was bereft of love and comfort to a little boy in East Texas. Your love for us was unwavering no matter any situation we encountered or actions. You loved your family with an ongoing passion which never waned but grew more abundant as the years went by.

You loved Mama with all your heart from your first meeting and through all the years as you aged and sat holding her hand each day. You were the role model for a loving husband and father. Even to the last week you told Mama and me how pretty we were and complemented the things we wore.

But I guess I had better start at the beginning. I am told I called you "Mama" until I was almost 3 years old. You were the major nurturer alongside Mama. You were the one who rocked me to sleep, said our prayers together before bed and comforted me from the transient falls and scrapes I endured.

I remember sitting for hours in the garage watching you work (at what, I am still not sure) and playing 45's especially one song- Blues in the Night. I learned the Big Band sound from the beginning of my memory of sound. We were an avid audience in those garage days – Maestro our cocker spaniel and me.

You were a daddy who treasured time with your family and included us in everything to maximize those moments in life that we cherish later.

Every weekend when I was 3-5 yrs old we cleaned brick from fireplaces out in the country in old abandoned homes. From this you acquired every brick to build our dream home in the country. I did not know it was because we were poor and that was the means to build our castle. I loved sitting in the fields and you made it a picnic and you told stories to keep me entertained during the long hours.

We had long drives together each day as you took me to Casis School, to special education classes to gain skills to achieve in a hearing world, you then went to work as a band director and then picked me up and we traveled back home. Just the two of us for an hour and a half traveling together each day on 969.

Father and Daughter. So many talks and sharing. So much love shared. And also we played "get your goover" – that's when you would speed up for the dip in the road before the railroad track and then fly up over the track causing you to get that drop in your stomach. Any anatomy and physiology book will confirm that is your "goover". An important lesson in life.

And on those trips we would find abandoned dogs, like Wilma, that we would stop and feed each day and who would eventually join our household of many cats and dogs. You had such a tender heart for all creatures.

You fostered a love of animals that no one could top. The only thing you ever killed was a fly and an ant. You loved the wildlife, enjoying the deer in fields along the road – we had fun finding the best bluebonnet spots and the most deer, tracking the migrating ducks as we traversed the countryside and highways. Always in that little Volkswagon.!

I was in your band in Pearce Jr. High. I watched as you cared for those students. Guiding them, counseling and just loving them – many who came from impoverished homes, divorced homes and other less than ideal living situations. You believed in them and taught them to believe in themselves. You taught them the joy of achieving and were always quick with your words of encouragement. You demanded that they achieve their best and they were so proud when they received your approval and won competitions. You became their "surrogate" father and I was soooo proud of you! You transformed many of their lives. And you even let me play the flute rather than the clarinet that you wanted me to play. It required you to purchase an instrument that I know now that we could not afford when had I chosen the clarinet I would have been playing yours.

You made many sacrifices for having two deaf children preparing for life. You frequently held two jobs, school in the day and dance band at night. We always had the best hearing aids, best therapies never suspecting the sacrifices that were made for our success in life. We were rich!

And then the teen years brought my passion to ballroom dance and take lessons with Bob Wilson's dance studio. You played for all his dances and I would tag along and was entranced with the dancers. I begged to take lessons at 12 which was not allowed at that time and you negotiated with Bob to take me in early. That allowed me to become an exhibition dancer in Tango and the Waltz before I was 16 yrs old. oh how I loved it! Thank you!

But oh Daddy, I remember best when I went off to Purdue to get my second nursing degree. It was quite frightening to be a Texan in a lone Northern Territory and especially not to get to see my family at least once a month as I had done when attending nursing at Corpus Christi. You bought me an antique printer's tray and would send me a figurine each month to place in it to remind me of yours and Mama's love and support. I still have it today.

And then when I ruptured my appendix flying back to Purdue and had emergency surgery, you arrived quickly from Texas and would rub my feet for hours to help alleviate the pain. You nursed me back to health and carried me through that valley.

You loved taking Mama and me shopping for new clothes. You enjoyed commenting on all the styles, helping us pick out just the right outfit. You were always excited about our new purchases, much more so than anything you ever bought for yourself. I had to go shopping by myself yesterday to buy something for this event. It was not fun anymore without you.

In the 1990s, we took ballroom dancing together, a dream you had had for many years to learn to dance and not just play for dances. I don't think either one of us really excelled, but we had fun being together. It was a father/daughter thing!

So many books you have written so many degrees you have achieved and so many lives you touched deeply! You are my hero.

The things you taught me in life:
1. Unconditional love. I never remember an angry word but always your words of encouragement and arms of comfort. You made the way for a deaf child to succeed in a hearing world. You gave me strength to believe in myself and never give up on my dreams. You always were the as the song goes "the wind beneath my wings". OR you gave me the wind to catch my sail to and (glide?) to victory. As I traveled the country to teach Handicapped Law, I was always excited to share how you and Mama believed in me and gave me the faith to never waiver, never turn back and never stop. You gave me the values and tools to succeed. Your profound love always pointed to victory/ accomplishment/ achievement.
2. Everyone is special and has dignity and worth. I was never taught nor knew prejudice. All during my growing up years, I was surrounded by close friends of the family and band members who represented a cornucopia of ethnic and racial groups, disabilities and sexual orientation. Love and acceptance were always a value in our household. I did not know about societal attitudes against people groups until I entered college. Interesting, isn't it.
3. Encouragement is a profound action. Everyone needs encouragement. Criticism is doled out impacting almost every moment of one's day. Take the time to lift someone up. Try to make someone's day special. He taught that learning always occurs best through positive encouragement. He is my model for teaching. I try to emulate him and make a difference in my student's lives as he did in his and ours.
4. Give complements freely. He was a master at this. Daddy would always stop at the tables in restaurants complimenting the ladies on their dress or their hair. He said women did not get complimented enough and needed to hear someone say something nice to them each day. Oh how that is true!
5. Education is the path that both creates and achieves the dreams. Everyone deserves the opportunity for a good education. Education should be engaging and exciting for the learner. He made learning fun both as a band director and his work with the Junior Historians. He was a master at creating an environment which stimulated the quest for knowledge.
6. Love beauty, the art and music and flowers and creatures of life. Search for the sunsets and regale in their spectacular display. Beauty abounds in all of God's Creation. Don't miss any of it with the busy ness of life. He always made time to share the beauty around him.

You always told me how proud you were of me and my brother and what we had accomplished. And how much you appreciated what we did for you and Mama. Just 3 days before you made the transition to Heaven, you said it again in the ER and I shared that it we were who we were because of all that he had instilled in us and the love he gave us. I told him how very proud we were of the hero in our lives who accomplished so many things in so many areas and touched so many lives. He seemed grateful to hear me say it again and he thanked me. I felt that in life he had not heard those words enough. Never miss a minute to tell someone how proud you are of them.

You were the greatest Gift God could have given us to be our father. You were everything God intended for a Father and Jeffrey and I were so blessed to have received such a glorious gift in you. The sheet, the Father's Love Letter, provided with the program (available in the foyer if you did not get one) expresses the perfect love of a Father for his child! It's God's expression of His love for us. I read it often and share it with my students, and it expresses the perfect Father you have been to us. Some of these among many that are most touching to me are—and I quote-
"And it is my desire to lavish my love on you- Simply because you are my child and I am your Father. I will never stop doing good to you. For you are my treasured possession. For I am your greatest encourager. I am also the Father who comforts you in all your troubles. When you are brokenhearted, I am close to you.

Daddy I wish I could run into your arms right now to be comforted. I miss you terribly. But our perfect Father in Heaven will bring us the joy of memories and the arms of comfort while we wait for the joyous party you have planned, with the Heavenly Big Band and all the dear pets who are now with you. I know you anxiously await that reunion with all who are here today and I can see the smile of anticipation.

In the past few years, you gave the 'Hook 'Em Horns' sign each time I left. It always meant- I love you! Good bye!" And now I give the 'Hook 'Em Horns' sign today. And I am saying - I love you, Daddy and Goodbye.

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Suggested Memorial Donations

  • For those wishing to make donations at the college level: The Kenneth B. Ragsdale Memorial Music Scholarship (University of Texas at Austin). These funds will be used for an endowment in Ken's name, created to last in perpetuity.
  • The Kenneth B. Ragsdale Memorial Music Scholarship (University of Texas at Austin)
    Raine Munkens/Development Office/Butler School of Music
    University of Texas at Austin/2406 Robert Dedman Dr./E3100
    Austin , TX 78712
  • For those wishing to make donations at the elementary, middle and high school level: The Kenneth Ragsdale Memorial Fund (Austin I.S.D.) These funds will be used for the purchase of much-needed instruments for underprivileged students.
  • The Kenneth Ragsdale Memorial Fund (A.I.S.D.)
    Austin I.S.D./Fine Arts Department/Attn. Mark Gurgel
    1111 West 6th Street
    Austin, TX 78703

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