An obituary

Leola Lee Ragland, of Allen, Texas died February 28, 2017 at the age of 91.  She was born near Gatlin, Oklahoma in 1926 to James Odus Kelley and Mattie Alabama Kelley.  She was preceded in death by her parents and brothers Truman, Alvin, Guardie, and Thurman Kelley, and sister Ruby Siever.

She is survived by her husband of 68 years, Dr. Jim Ragland, son James Ragland of Pearland, Texas, daughter Rebecca Cherry of Springfield, Missouri, son John Ragland of Hot Springs, Arkansas, son Steve Ragland of Plano, Texas, and nephews Chester Kelley of Shreveport, Louisiana and Joel Engle of Anchorage, Alaska.  She is also survived by grandchildren Matthew, Jennifer, Megan, John Clayton, Christina, and Rebekah, and many great-grandchildren and grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

She lived almost four decades in Beirut, Lebanon.  Wife, mother, missionary and educator, she arrived by steamship in the early 1950s to discover a beautiful city by the Mediterranean Sea.  She also discovered a beautiful and amazingly resilient, hospitable people. She especially loved the young children she worked with at Beirut Baptist School.  In 1987, President Reagan ordered the few remaining Americans to leave the land that had become her home.  Reluctantly, she left Lebanon as she had arrived, on a ship, in the middle of a stormy winter night.

She was there in 1958, when Eisenhower’s marines stormed the beaches of Beirut, only to be welcomed by friendly Lebanese handing out bottles of Coca-Cola.  She was there in 1967, huddled in the dark with other expat families, until dawn revealed an ocean of blue and white Pan Am jets waiting to evacuate them all. And she was there during the blackest days of a 15-year bloody civil war.  She survived a harrowing home invasion.  She endured deprivations and witnessed horrors few Americans will ever know.

She sacrificed much to make her children’s lives in that faraway land a magical adventure they will never forget.  She was a testament to endurance and survival.  As a teenager, she survived a freak accident that nearly killed her.  She survived broken bones, snipers, Finlay Graham’s driving, two knee replacements, a stroke that left her blind in one eye and, at the age of 87, hours of touch-and-go open-heart surgery.

She will be remembered for her fierce devotion to family and to her Higher Calling, for her unyielding tenacity, her contagious smile and her many stories. Her memory will be cherished by everyone whose life she touched.

There will be a celebration of Mrs. Ragland’s long and well-run race at 11:00 AM, Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Hunter’s Glen Baptist Church, 4001 Custer Road, in Plano, Texas.  A reception and time of fellowship will follow.   Memorial donations may be made to the IMB General Relief Fund.

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  1. Want to know more? Here’s a collection of occasionally hyperbolic and slightly inaccurate People Magazine articles (and letters in response) from 1982 and 1987 that feature Nancie Wingo (who died just a few weeks ago) and my parents…


    In War-Torn West Beirut American James Ragland Stands by His Troubled School
    By Mary Davis Suro, July 5, 1982 at 12:00PM EST

    In the Palestinian stronghold of West Beirut, the streets of the Mouseitb neighborhood were cratered by shells and littered with garbage. Rifle-toting men stood at the corners, their uniforms changing, street by street, from Syrian soldiers to Lebanese militiamen to Palestinian guerrillas according to their political loyalties in this crazy-quilt community. Even before Israeli troops invaded Lebanon and swept to the outskirts of predominantly Muslim West Beirut, the armed patrols made Mouseitb a frightening place for a child. Now it is a nightmare.

    For the past 27 years the children of Mouseitb have been the special ministry of an Oklahoma-born preacher named James Ragland. Through decades of bombings and terror, Ragland, 58, has kept the Beirut Baptist School open as an oasis of sanity for his young flock. “These children were facing death every night in their homes and every day in the streets,” he explains. “At least we could be here to give them some encouragement.” Sadly, on June 9 Ragland bowed to the inevitable and temporarily closed the school. “The soldiers began to open their antiaircraft guns about a half block away and the kids were terrified,” he says. “So we said, ‘School is finished. We hope to see you next October.’ ”

    With a few local volunteer doctors and nurses, Ragland has transformed the school into a clinic for the wounded and a shelter for some of the 600,000 homeless Lebanese who have flooded into Beirut. The danger he faces is grave; when the fighting reached the city, Ragland urged the four American missionary women on his staff to take refuge in the nearby mountains. Two weeks ago he heard that one of his students, a 10-year-old girl named Nina, was found decapitated outside her bombed apartment building. The girl’s mother and sister also died in the attack, which apparently was aimed at a presumed PLO hideout a block away. Another student was killed the following week by a car bomb that detonated as she was playing in the street. Ragland expects to hear of many other deaths among his charges as the rubble is cleared in the days ahead, but he perseveres. “I think I owe it to the people with whom I’ve lived to stick with them in times of danger,” he says.

    A native of Ada, Okla., the son of schoolteachers, Ragland earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma before entering the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. After serving as pastor of a small Texas church, he was appointed to his Beirut post in 1952 as a foreign missionary of the Southern Baptist Convention and settled there two years later with his wife, Leola, and their first two children, James, now 33, and Rebecca, 31. Their younger kids, John, 26, and Stephen, 23, were born in Beirut. He opened his school in 1955 for a student body of 100; it has since grown to 800. About 85 percent of the enrollment is Muslim. “We can’t really preach to these children,” he says, “but we feel that they need to know about God and be ready to meet Him if they should die.”

    The school has been closed at least 20 times in the past because of fighting. During the civil war that raged in 1976, Ragland staged his July graduation ceremony under combat conditions. “There was no electricity and we couldn’t print diplomas,” he recalls. “Instead, we made them with stencils. We had little hand-held tape recorders that we used to play the Lebanese national anthem, and the students received their diplomas in blue jeans. During the ceremony, we could hear shelling in the background.”

    Through the heaviest fighting in recent weeks, Ragland, with about 60 women and children from the neighborhood, has often huddled underground in the school’s bomb shelter. “Once you’ve been down below,” he remarks, “you get a new kind of terror.” During respites in the fighting, he and Leola pay sympathy calls on families in mourning. “Leola always comes home with her eyes red and her face swollen because you can’t help but cry with them,” he says. “But as long as I can give relief, I will remain.”


    Re. James Ragland

    As a veteran of two wars whose military career spanned more than 21 years, I considered myself inured to the suffering of noncombatants on the battlefield as well as to the anguish and futility to be seen in their faces. I was wrong. Your picture of a gaunt and tormented James Ragland, the Baptist missionary in Beirut, made me do something I thought I had forgotten how to do. It made me cry.

    Lt. Col. Hellmut Meyer, Ret.
    Pacific Grove, Calif.


    Oklahoma-born preacher James Ragland, who was forced to close the Beirut Baptist school he has run for 27 years (July 5), got back in business on Nov. 11. The school, with an enrollment of 800, was the first to reopen after hostilities ceased. Located in a particularly troubled area of West Beirut, it was left standing despite three direct rocket hits. Over the summer it was converted into a first-aid station for the wounded and a shelter for desperate refugees. Says Ragland, 58: “I believe God has something special for Lebanon in his plan for the world. The people could not have gone through so much if there wasn’t a purpose.”


    U.S. Policy, Not Militia Gunfire, Drives Missionary Teacher Nancie Wingo Out of Lebanon
    By Mira Avrech, March 16, 1987 at 12:00PM EST

    In West Beirut gunmen were hiding their weapons, even as garbage collectors ventured out to begin cleaning up the city. Occupying Syrian troops had brought momentary quiet to the battered Lebanese capital. At 6:15 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the troops entered West Beirut, the white-washed ferryboat Empress steamed into Larnaca, Cyprus. The eight-hour, 125-mile Mediterranean voyage from Lebanon had been through a raging electrical storm, which seemed to reflect the mood of its passengers. Among the refugees were 17 Southern Baptist missionaries, including Nancie Wingo, 55, who in 1964 had gone to Lebanon as an English teacher in the Beirut Baptist school, located in the heart of the Muslim-controlled western half of the city. Beneath her jacket, she was wearing a cream-colored silk blouse perforated with shrapnel holes—a casualty of the crossfire whipping over her balcony where the blouse had hung to dry. Shortly after arriving in Cyprus, Wingo, sister of Assistant Managing Editor Hal Wingo, explained to Correspondent Mira Avrech why only an order from the U.S. government could have forced her to leave Lebanon…

    “Take one suitcase and come!” said the Lebanese army officer who stood at the door of my apartment. He had come to escort us across the “green line” from Muslim West Beirut to the relative safety of Christian East Beirut.

    I had known for days that we would leave. We wanted to stay, but the State Department had declared that if we did not leave Lebanon we could be fined or imprisoned when entering the U.S. I had everything in suitcases and boxes ready to ship, but when the officer appeared at my door he said that I was allowed to bring only one bag. My greatest worry was that I wouldn’t have a chance to say good-bye to the students and teachers, the people I had lived with and loved for so many years. The fighting in the streets had been so heavy that there had been no school for four days. I really just stood there and debated with myself, “Should I go now, when I’m not ready? This is too fast. I don’t know if I want to go!” But then I also thought, “Who knows if I’ll get another chance? And if, in spite of the danger, this man came to get me across to East Beirut, I can’t tell him now that I don’t want to go.”

    So Mrs. Jim Ragland, our school principal’s wife, and I got into the army car and took off. It was scary. There had been a lot of sniping, and there was nobody else in the streets as the car moved quickly to avoid rifle fire from the rooftops. At the last checkpoint in West Beirut, we had to cross a four-block stretch of no-man’s-land.

    My first thought on entering East Beirut that day was that I hated the idea of leaving the country from that side. Sometimes when I love something and it’s taken away from me, I don’t want anything else. Nothing else is right. I wanted to be in West Beirut—or gone from Lebanon.

    The fighting of the past few weeks had been different. Many times before we had been caught in fights because one militia was in conflict with another. The Hizballah, Amal, Druze, Shi’ites and Sunnis had all fought each other at one time or another. But this time, all the parties were fighting against Amal. My sixth floor apartment, just a block from the school, was situated between Druze and Amal militias shooting at each other. The gunmen were firing back and forth without even seeing where they were shooting. Sometimes they would put their machine guns over the side of the roof and just spray! In the last days before I left, they hit five different glass doors of my apartment. I had replaced these doors four times before from the fighting, and now, here they were, crumbled again.

    The first two nights of the fighting I’d moved my sofa into the hall and stayed there because that meant there was an outside room all around. If any rocket-propelled grenades came in, they would explode in one of the outside rooms. I’d seen what happens when the shrapnel from those RPGs hits a room. You learn not to trust your walls. After a couple of days, when the fighting became heavier than ever before, I couldn’t get back to my apartment so I stayed with Mrs. Ragland at the school compound. Leola and her husband, Jim, had left for the East Side two weeks before, but she had come back to pack their things. The American Embassy had insisted that Jim leave West Beirut because of the threat of kidnapping to American men.

    With Jim’s departure, I was left to run the school, which was difficult. I am an English teacher and not used to directing 940 students. They had seen the photos in the weekend papers of Dr. Ragland leaving and they were in shock. When they came to school on Monday I spoke to the older ones in chapel and told them that my father—who was a Baptist pastor in Texas for 50 years—always said that if a pastor leaves a church and the church falls apart, it means that he wasn’t a very good pastor. So I told them that now it was up to them to show what a good director he had been, to demonstrate the respect he had always taught.

    You have to understand how important education is to the people of Lebanon. Seventy percent of our students are Muslim and only 30 percent Christian. The Muslims are determined to come to our school, even though everyone must study the Bible and go to chapel. Every spring parents come and insist that we accept their children. Often a mother would come to enroll her child and be told there were no more places in the school. Sometimes, after arguing with the school secretary to no avail, the mother would return the next day with several gun-carrying militiamen. Then Jim Ragland would have to agree to give the child an entry exam and accept more children in the school than we knew was ideal.

    This is not my first time to be evacuated. During the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, the Arabs wanted us out because they felt the Americans had been very pro-Israeli, and they began to break into American businesses and attack anything they saw that was American. That was the wildest and most dangerous period I can remember. We left West Beirut again during the Israeli invasion in 1982. We went to live in the mountain towns because of the air strikes over the city. Those were the only two times in all my years there that we didn’t have graduation at the school, because the fighting broke out just before our June ceremonies.

    Last week the sniping was so bad as I ran back from the Ragland’s house to my apartment that I was terrified I’d be hit. Still, although I was scared, I knew in a few days a ceasefire would end the fighting, and I did not want to leave the city. When friends ask me why I stayed all these years I think about how wonderful Lebanon was when I first arrived. Lebanon really hasn’t had much of a chance in recent years because of all the different groups competing for power within it. But what kind of person would I be if I said to the Lebanese, “Your life isn’t secure anymore, so I’m going to get out of here!” The students were important to me when I first went to Lebanon, and they were no less important now because life was difficult. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite to stay for the good years and leave during the bad? The truth is we stayed in Beirut because we felt that we had become part of the community there, and that what we were doing was important. We were trying to contribute to what was still good in the country. We felt the only hope for Lebanon was its youth, and we were there to work with the youth.

    The Lebanese people are amazing. In the November 1986 fighting, the Druze and Amal militia were shooting and killing each other and school was closed for three days. When it reopened, the children of those families who’d been on opposite sides hugged each other and said, “God willing, nothing happened to you, or to your family. I hope that everybody is all right.” The interesting thing is that not one of our students has joined a militia. None of them wants to fight.

    When I look back at my stay in Beirut, I will always be grateful to God for these years. It was a special gift. I resent those politicians in the U.S. who say that the Americans who stayed in West Beirut were irresponsible and stubborn. I don’t understand why it is better to risk your life for a military or scientific cause than it is to risk your life to help people, people who are trying to maintain some goodness in a world that is caving in around them.


    Re. Nancie Wingo

    Thanks for the article regarding Nancie Wingo and Dr. and Mrs. Jim Ragland, Southern Baptist missionaries who were ordered to leave their school in West Beirut. Americans could not have better “ambassadors” than these. My wife and I visited their mission in Lebanon several years ago and were impressed with what we saw and heard.

    Paul W. Stephens
    Austin, Texas

    Nancie Wingo forgets that having American citizenship has responsibilities and also has its drawbacks. One of these drawbacks is that the good of “the whole” is not always the best for the individual. Has she forgotten about the kidnapped Americans in Beirut and what a black eye that situation has brought this country? Miss Wingo’s and other Americans’ presence in Beirut has put all of the U.S. in a bad position. She, as well as others, could have been taken hostage and used as pawns in the Mideast “chess game.” Miss Wingo asks, “I don’t understand why it is better to risk your life for a military or a scientific cause than it is to risk your life to help people….” The key word is your. By your presence in Beirut it is not just your life that you are risking, it is the lives and integrity of a whole country.

    Ross D. Hasson II
    Libertyville, Ill.

    • Afaf Bassous on March 1, 2017 at 1:38 am

    Dear Regland family,

    Our deep condolences to you all – Specially to Dr. Regland. May God give you the peace in your hearts. We know and still remember how she was,, and I have a picture of me and my daughter with Mrs Regland when the first graduate student (which is me) brought her daughter to be in this great school.
    Me and George send you our love and hugs to all the family

    Afaf & George Bassous

    • Grace Kusta Nasralla on March 1, 2017 at 5:33 am

    Our deepest condolences to Dr Ragland and family. She had definitely left a heart stamp with many good memories behind (I can say that for BBS students – I loved her smile in the morning greeting us kids with “Good Morning!”.) She had definitely influenced many lives for Jesus.

    May God’s peace surround the family during this time of grief.

    • Ghassan Abu Hassan on March 1, 2017 at 6:24 am

    Rest in peace Mrs Regland . Our sincere condolences to Mr. Regland & his entire family.

  2. Dear Jim and the Ragland family,
    Susan and I were so touched by the life of Leola, and strengthened by her great and unwavering faith! Both she and you, Jim, had a tremendous impact on our lives and ministry beginning with your visit with us in Caracas, Venezuela. It was a privilege to know you both, and will be even a greater joy to see Leola again in the presence of our Savior. Rich and Susan Hutchens, IMB South America, Caribbean Basin, NAME.

  3. From the Beirut Baptist School Facebook page:

    Leola Ragland
    A lady like no other!

    Retired Beirut Baptist School (BBS) teachers, and the few remaining ones who worked alongside her at the time, remember Leola Ragland (whom they referred to as Mrs. Ragland) as a devoted Christian with a humble, friendly and loving nature. Her many friends came from all walks of life. She was forever considerate of others, and standing by them in their hour of need.

    For around three decades, Mrs. Ragland helped her husband, Dr. James Ragland, in running BBS – the Pre-School section in particular. Together they remained in our country for most of the Lebanese Civil war (1975-1990). Despite the chaotic circumstances that accompanied that period, and the pressures exerted on them, James and Leola Ragland were determined to maintain the high standards that they had set and so refused to accept weak and/or undisciplined students, or promote failing students. Nothing and no one could push them to lower the bar.

    With much compassion they stood by hundreds of internally displaced families whom the 1982 Israeli invasion drove away from their homes and villages. The Raglands received them at BBS and set out to address their needs.

    During the Civil War, the memories of which linger to-date in the minds of many Lebanese, armed men broke into the Raglands’ place of residence at BBS and mistreated them. When asked what went through her mind at the time and whether she was expecting God to rescue them, her response was, “I was not sure of that, but I was sure that God was present.”

    Those who knew Leola Ragland remember her deep love for the Lord, and faith in Him. Also, her love for our country, Lebanon, and its people. She loved both enough to adapt to, and adopt, our culture.

    On behalf of the BBS and LSESD community, we offer our sincere condolences to her family and friends. Neither those who worked alongside her, nor those who had the privilege of having her as their teacher, can forget our dearly beloved Mrs. Ragland.

  4. God’s comfort to Jim and his strong, faithful family. Love and admiration to Leola, until we meet again.

    • Ruth Maddox on March 3, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t know how many years I have known Leola, but have experienced her love, joy, faithfulness and peace in a very special way for over forty years, and felt her prayers and love. Hearing her relate the stories of their school, their friends in Lebanon was always inspiring! We have spent many happy hours walking, praying and talking and sharing together. She always inspired others, and lead them to know and pray more about missions around the World. For years she was like a sister to me. I will truly miss visiting with her, looking forward to joining her real soon! Until all have heard, Ruth Maddox

    • Edmond M. Khoury on March 4, 2017 at 2:52 am

    The sad news of the passing away of Mrs. Ragland made me ponder on the time that I met them in Mansourieh. Gracious, loving and full compassion to my country and it’s people. Their long years of faithful service in the harvest earned them the respect and love of many. May the God of all comfort, comfort your hearts and grant y’all His peace at this great time of sadness.

    • Pat P. Darnell on March 19, 2017 at 11:48 am

    I hope I am welcome on your site – I really loved your mom’s obituary in the Sentinel-Record. Did you write it? The beautiful picture from the old days when women looked so lovely was special. Altho’ I had only three years in the Middle Est, I think I must have loved the people as your mom did, and I brought a little Persian orphan home with me. She is now a lovely and talented wife and mother of a college-age son. I know you are already missing her. I hope her last days were easy….She was a very special person, I can tell and, it probably won’t be long until I meet her! Peace and comfort to all of you. Sincerely, Pat Darnell

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