Brian Abel Ragen is the son of Harry Joseph Ragen, Jr. and Helen Abel Ragen, who was born Helen Louise Abel and used the name Helen Abel throughout her professional career.

Harry Ragen was educated at Creighton University, where he received both Ph.B. and LL.B. degrees. (The latter was converted into a J.D. when the pretensions of the legal profession increased to doctoral levels in the 1960’s.) He was drafted in 1941 and served throughout War World II in the United States Army Signal Corps. After serving in various posts in North Africa and Italy, including stints as encryption/decryption officer for General Eisenhower and as a JAG officer, he took part in the Italian campaign and found himself scouting local phone lines to link the front line troop with their artillery support. For his intrepid actions during one such patrol, when he carried his wounded driver to safety after they came under German fire and their jeep was disabled, he was awarded the Bronze Star. After the war, he joined his mother and sisters in San Diego California and practiced law. He died in 1975.

Helen Abel Ragen attended the University of Nebraska and went on to receive a B.A. from Scripps College and an M.S. from the Prince School of Marketing at Simmons College. She was an award-winning journalist, whose work covered fashion, society, and even sports. (She covered San Diegan Florence Chadwick as she swam the English Channel and other straits.) She was also an active philanthropist and community leader. At various times she headed the boards of the San Diego Art Museum (to use its current name), the San Diego Ballet, and the San Diego Branch of the USO, to which she was particularly devoted. (A library at their facility in San Diego was named in her honor.) She also served on many national boards, including that of what was then the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She was always a leader in fashion herself, and her newspaper column “Through the Looking Glass” ran in the Copley newspapers for many years. She also died in 1975.

Ragen’s paternal grandfather, Harry Joseph Ragen, Sr., was a haberdasher in Oskaloosa Iowa until ill health forced him to move to Omaha, where several of his children pursued their educations. His maternal grandfather, George P. Abel, Sr. also died young, but only after founding several enduring enterprises in Lincoln, Nebraska. The most notable was what is now Nebco, Inc., which has continued to flourish under the leadership first of Abel's widow, then of his son George P. Abel, Jr., and now of his grandson Jim Abel. Professor Ragen no longer has any ownership interest in the company, but thanks to his annual participation in its stockholders meetings and many visits to the sites of its operations, he is one of the few literature professors with a firm grasp of the difference between cement and concrete and a passing acquaintance with slaughterhouses, sand pits, rebar mills, and limestone mines. He also can boast of having run a locomotive and blown its whistle—admittedly with close supervision by the engineer on Nabco’s 2.5 mile railroad, the OL & B. He treasures his Nebraska heritage, and was proud to be appointed to the rank of Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska by Governor Kay Orr in 1989.

Despite, or because of, the early deaths of their husbands, both Ragen’s grandmothers became very distinguished women. Catherine Mary Ragen (Mamie) was named California Mother of the Year by the
American Mother’s Committee. Despite finding herself with a dying husband and five children in the midst of a nationwide depression, she saw to it that her family thrived and that all her children received advanced degrees—and that at a time when a young woman with a master’s, much less a Ph.D., was a rarity. A year after Mrs. Ragen was honored, Hazel Hempel Abel was named national Mother of the year. While she had also seen five children through college as a widow, her achievements were largely on the public stage. She managed the concrete and insurance companies her husband had built up until her son was able to take them over, and had an independent career in politics. She served briefly in the United States Senate, where her most important act was to vote for the condemnation of her fellow Republican Joseph McCarthy in 1954. (Abel may have been the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate who did not follow her husband into politics.) She later ran unsuccessfully for the Nebraska governorship and served as a delegate to several Republican National Conventions. She began the light-hearted tradition of nominating fictional characters for the vice presidency on the Republican ticket.

After his parents’ early deaths, two of his aunts became Ragen’s guardians. Alice Ragen was a long-time social worker in San Diego County. Katherine Ragen attended William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa before receiving an M.A. from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. She taught at several colleges, including Bemiji State University in Minnesota, Creighton University’s Duschene College (where her sister was her student and an eager critic of her style as a lecturer), Omaha University (now the University of Nebraska—Omaha), and San Diego State College. At San Diego State she achieved the rank of full professor and also served for a time as dean of women. She was Ragen’s model in choosing an academic career.

Ragen’s elder brother, Dennis Abel Ragen, is a Deputy Attorney General in California and an expert in environmental law. That millions of children throughout the world can enjoy their soft drinks and candy without ingesting a dangerous amount of lead is due to his efforts. He is married to Christine Hickman, who has served as both a Superior Court Commissioner and a Professor of Law. Their son Patrick, a graduate of Stanford, worked for several years at the William Morris Agency before enrolling in Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Black Law Students Association. He recently accepted a position in the Los Angeles offices of the Akin Gump law firm. Patrick’s sister Helen, an equestrian who had many triumphs as a rider and driver, has followed her paternal grandmother’s example and now attends Scripps College.


Ragen’s schooling is not a pleasant topic, involving as it does his own learning disabilities and the chaos in American public education that began in the 1960’s. Ragen’s school years were further complicated by his parents’ illnesses and deaths. He was graduated from Point Loma High School in San Diego, and entered Pomona College in Claremont California. The years in Claremont were some of the richest in Ragen’s intellectual life, and he remains grateful to Martha Andresen, Edward Copeland, Thomas Pinney, Monique Saigal and other members of Pomona’s faculty. After receiving his B.A. in 1980, he entered the graduate program at Princeton University, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. and studied with Thomas P. Roche, A. Walton Litz, and other distinguished scholars. He taught for a time at both Princeton and Bryn Mawr College before taking a tenure-track position at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. (The university later discarded the “at,” while remaining a regional campus.) While an undergraduate, he took part in Pomona’s program at Oxford University (which, sadly, has been shut down by Oxford’s administration, who evidently want to protect its brand by ending cooperative programs), and he treasures memories of his days eating in hall at University College and visiting his intimidating tutors and at Brasenose and All Souls.


In his boyhood Ragen loved reading the Boy Scout Handbook, and while the boys in the troop were not quite as close to the descriptions of good scouts in the book as he would have liked, he loved scouting, too. He was a member of Troop 567 in San Diego, which named him “Scout of the Year” twice, and was very active in Yei Clan and Ashe Lodge of the Order of the Arrow. He is—and he insists on the present tense—an Eagle Scout and a Vigil Honor Member of the Order of the Arrow. He is a life member of the National Eagle Scout Association and belongs to the Scouting Alumni Association. He can still show the curious his Eagle Scout medal, his merit badges, and piles of patches, including two mile swim badges and a 50 nights of camping emblem. He can also still build a fire and tie a taut-line hitch. Whether he remains trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and so on is not for him to say.