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Duquesne native sees St. Vincent alma mater perform his play 'Commedia'

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 9:06 p.m.
James Ragan, a poet, playwright, and screenwriter from Los Angeles speaks to a class at Greater Latrobe High School on October 5, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

When James Ragan grew up in Duquesne six decades ago, the steelworker's son and brother to 12 siblings never imagined that one day he would leave the Mon Valley and become such an accomplished poet that he would read his works in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, London and Prague.

Ragan, an internationally acclaimed poet and St. Vincent College graduate, told a group of Greater Latrobe High School students in an inspiring speech last week that they can achieve greatness if they believe in themselves.

“You have to do that. The first person to stop you is you with (your) doubts. That word ‘yes' will help you get there. It shows where you can go with ... the power of the word ‘yes,'” said the 67-year-old Ragan, who lives in Los Angeles.

By saying “yes”' to a Hollywood agent when asked if he could write a screenplay, a new world opened up to him, even though he never had written a screenplay, said Ragan, who was visiting St. Vincent College to see his alma mater perform his play, “Commedia.”

He would go on to be a screenwriter on the adaption of the 1973 film “Faber” and had worked on the film classic, “The Godfather.” He also worked in a production capacity in “The Deer Hunter,” helping the producer authenticate the Russian Orthodox wedding in the film, Ragan said.

Ragan did not let the difficulties of his childhood prevent him from gaining his success. His parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia, coming to America in 1929 with hopes of making a better life. Like thousands of other immigrants who settled in the Mon Valley in the early part of the 20th century, his father toiled for U.S. Steel Corp. His father's workplace was the Duquesne Works, where he would work double shifts to make more money.

Ragan's home life mirrored that of many other immigrant families in the region. His parents spoke their native tongue, Slovak, not English, at home. The house had only one bathroom, and the children shared two bedrooms — one for the boys and one for the girls. Money was scarce, and there were a lot of mouths to feed.

Knowing his family could not afford to finance his college education, Ragan parlayed his athletic skills in football, basketball and baseball to get a scholarship. It's what so many others of his generation had to do in those tough Mon Valley towns to avoid a lifetime of following their fathers and uncles into the dirt and danger of the steel mills or coal mines.

Ragan's motto might well be “surround yourself with the best.” To learn to write poetry, he bought books of poems from the best authors. He has gone on to publish eight books of poetry, called “arresting and distinctive” by the famed American poet Richard Wilbur and “lyrical and authoritative” by American poet C.K. Williams.

“Poetry is where I live. You don't know where poetry and literature will take you,” said Ragan, who got a chance to visit his son Jameson, who has followed his father's path and is a student at St. Vincent.

His poetry and literature have taken him to the capitals of the world — Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, London, Paris, Athens and Vienna, to name a few.

Author Joyce Carol Oates called him “one of the few American poets who has taken his poetry to the world,” Ragan said.

Ragan recalled that when he participated in the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow in 1985, reading his poetry before 10,000 people at an arena and 90 million on television, he was joined by legendary singer Bob Dylan and famed poet Robert Bly, he was “feeling the most unworthy of all.”

In addition to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Ragan has performed in front of Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus and South Korean Prime Minister Young-Hoon Kang.

“The power of the word has the power to move the minds of world leaders,” Ragan said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or