He was born in Berea, North Carolina and was the son of William Samuel Ragan and Emma Clare (Long) Ragan. In 1936 he graduated from Atlantic Christian, now Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina and married Marjorie Usher in 1939. He served briefly as a reporter for the San Antonio Evening News, now the San Antonio Express-News, and then returned to North Carolina where, beginning in 1941, he held various editorial positions with The Raleigh News & Observer.
While with the News & Observer he began writing Southern Accent, a weekly newspaper column of literary criticism, commentary and poetry. It became the longest running column in the United States and appeared in forty-three states and twenty-four foreign countries. In 1969 he purchased The Pilot, a small weekly newspaper in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Ragan served as its editor and publisher, remaining active on The Pilot's staff until his death.
In addition to his work as a newspaperman Sam Ragan published six collections of verse including Journey into Morning and To The Water's Edge as well as several works of non-fiction. However, he may be best known as a public intellectual and a widely admired advocate of the arts. He was the first secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and the first chair of the North Carolina Arts Council. He taught creative writing and journalism at Sandhills Community College, St. Andrews Presbyterian College (now St. Andrews University) and North Carolina State University. He served as president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and the North Carolina Press Association. In addition to serving on the boards of several associations devoted to history, music and the humanities he helped found and guide the North Carolina School of the Arts, and the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities.
North Carolina Congresswoman Eva M. Clayton once remarked that, "Those who are acquainted with Sam Ragan's professional activities are fully aware that as an editor he fashioned a distinguished career of recording and examining newsworthy events. How remarkable, then, that in his poetry he focused on ordinary people, the small incidents of daily life, the quiet unfolding of nature—events that never rated a headline. His unique talent transformed simple everyday occurrences. He made ordinary people special and special people ordinary."
A member of the Presbyterian church, Ragan was also a lifelong champion of the Democratic Party. In addition to his many works of poetry in 1961 he wrote "The Democratic Party: Its Aims and Purposes" and with Elizebeth Ives in 1969 he wrote "Back to Beginnings: Adlai E. Stevenson and North Carolina." North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford described Sam Ragan as "one of North Carolina's treasures. He was a crusading editorial force at The News and Observer where he fought for the improvement of education, the elimination of racial injustice and the broadening of economic opportunities."
Ragan was a recipient of the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, the John Taylor Caldwell Award for The Humanities, The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, the R. Hunt Parker Award for Literary Achievement, the Morrison Award and the North Caroliniana Society Award. He was elected to both the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Ragan was awarded honorary doctorates at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, Atlantic Christian (Barton) College, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1982 Governor Jim Hunt named Sam Ragan North Carolina's Poet Laureate for life.
In 1981 St. Andrews University initiated the Sam Ragan Awards. These awards are given annually "to honor of Samuel Talmadge Ragan, North Carolina's first Secretary of Cultural Resources" Barton College founded the Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center in their honor. In 2003 the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association paid tribute to Ragan's memory by establishing the Ragan Old North State Award Cup for Nonfiction.
Elena Ruehr composed a musical piece titled 'Exodus, based on four poems by Sam Ragan. The work was commissioned by the Coastal Carolina Chamber Music Festival and premiered during the 2005 season.
- Back to Beginnings: Adlai E. Stevenson and North Carolina. [Co-authored with Elizabeth S. Ives]. Charlotte, N.C.: Heritage Printers, 1969.
- Collected Poems of Sam Ragan. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1990.
- Journey into Morning. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1981.
- Listening to the Wind. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1995.
- The New Day. [Editor]. Zebulon, N.C.: Record Publishing Company, 1964.
- Poetry under the Stars. [Editor; Friday Noon Poets]. Durham, N.C.: Moore Publishing Company, 1979.
- To the Water's Edge. Durham, N.C.: Moore Publishing Company, 1971.
- The Tree in the Far Pasture. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1964.
- A Walk into April. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1986.
- Weymouth: An Anthology of Poetry [Editor]. Laurinburg, N.C.: St. Andrews Press, 1987.
- A Biography and Photograph of Sam Ragan at North Carolina Writer's Network. Retrieved April 30, 2006
- A Biography and Photograph of Sam Ragan From The Commemorative Program For The 1979 North Carolina Awards Ceremony. Retrieved April 30, 2006
- Sam Ragan Papers Inventory at The University of North Carolina Retrieved April 30, 2006
- North Carolina Writer's Network. Bring Sam Home. Retrieved March 30, 2005.
- North Carolina Writer's Network. Literary Hall of Fame. Retrieved March 30, 2005
- McDonald, Agnes. "Sam Ragan: Gentle Minder of the Arts." Carolina Arts 1 (Autumn 1981): 36–37.
- Morgan, Neil. Sam Ragan. Chapel Hill, N.C.: North Caroliniana Society, 1981. Imprint No. 5.
- Roberts, Nancy. "The Mission of Sam Ragan." In The Goodliest Land: North Carolina. Text by Nancy Roberts; photographs by Bruce Roberts. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. pp. 46–47, 51, 53.
- "Special Sam Ragan Issue." Sandhills/St. Andrews Review 41 (1992).
- Tributes to Sam Ragan in Pembroke Magazine, No. 17, 1985: 139–148.
- Inventory of the Sam Ragan Papers, 1948–1996, in the Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill