From “Rags” to rich careers and lives: a Badger alum gives back

Most people can recall a teacher who was instrumental in their lives. What sets Donna Chernin Kurit apart is that she internalized the lessons from UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication Professor Wilmott “Rags” Ragsdale so deeply that she used them to give something back.

Just as she was concluding that she was not passionate about her major, Kurit says, “I learned about this intriguing MA program in specialized reporting led by someone named Wilmott Ragsdale. Though it was four weeks into the semester when I asked Rags to be a part of the program, he let me in…after making me sweat it out! But he told me later he was always going to accept me. That’s just how he was.”

The program, and the man who lead it, changed Kurit’s life. “He was a magical force,” Kurit says of Ragsdale, “a great guy and somewhat of a mystical person to his students.”

Kurit, who earned her master’s degree in 1970, turned her fondness for Ragsdale into action recently when she created the Wilmott Ragdsale Graduate Student Award. She said the scholarship is to “help students fulfill a project they wanted to do. I wanted to give them a boost personally and professionally by honoring what Rags did for me.” Kurit added that anyone can give to the fund. “It would be great if other people Rags enriched gave back something to help current students,” she says.

“The Rags way” often involved having students over to his home to talk about literature and journalism, which made Kurit and her classmates “think we were big shots.” The purpose of the sessions, however, was not to puff up the students’ opinions of themselves; they were to fill students with lessons in boldness. “He always reminded us not just to write boldly, but to live boldly. He had tremendous energy and verve,” Kurit says.

Doing both, Kurit recalls one evening when, “Rags jumped up on a table to demonstrate boldness in lead writing . . . they don’t make ‘em like him any more. He was always teaching us how to show and not tell in our writing.”

Kurit landed a job with the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a film and drama critic and entertainment reporter. She lost touch with Ragsdale. She assumed for years that her former professor did not know where she ended up until one day when her editor “made a point to mention to me the lovely and touching letter of recommendation Rags wrote for me after my interview at the Plain Dealer. Of course, he knew where I was all along.”

Kurit reconnected with Ragsdale, taking her husband, Neil, and their children, Jordan and Blair, to regularly visit her mentor, who retired from UW in 1981, at his home near Puget Sound.

When asked why, among the countless students whom Ragsdale had affected in a similar way she was the one to give back with a gift to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kurit pauses. Then, she says that after her husband died of stomach cancer in 2008 and Ragsdale died in 2009 at 97, she thought for a long time about what she wanted to do next. She decided that should merely follow Rags’ advice.

“I guess I just decided to go with the moment like Rags would want me to, and I felt that I could give a scholarship to help other students live life boldly,” Kurit says.

To contribute to the Wilmott Ragsdale Graduate Student Award Fund, visit

— Mike Wagner