The Saranac Lake roots of an outspoken TV host
by Lisa Bramen
Ricocheting through the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza two hours before airtime, the host of The Dylan Ratigan Show was in his element. Congress was on the brink of shutting down the government over the debt ceiling, when Speaker of the House John Boehner announced a new proposal to end the showdown. The staff had to scramble to rewrite intros and on-air graphics for the MSNBC program.
Dylan Ratigan was unfazed by the turn of events, appearing to thrive on what he called the “pro wrestling” theatrics of American two-party politics. “Today is WrestleMania IV,” he quipped. He began hosting the 4:00 p.m. news-discussion hour a little over two years ago. Before that, he was a ﬁnancial commentator on Bloomberg News and then CNBC. Ratigan has developed a reputation for on-air outbursts—The Daily Beast called him “cable TV’s angriest anchorman” in 2010—but on this day he seemed more amused than outraged. He gave his team its marching orders, then headed to makeup.
Nothing about Ratigan immediately hints at his childhood in the rural Adirondacks. Even off-air, he speaks with a high-volume, rapid-ﬁre cadence with no trace of North Country accent. He looks the part of the urbane newsman: pale blue shirt neatly pressed but tieless under a dark sport coat, sneakers without socks, his graying forelock and creased forehead aging him slightly beyond his 40 years.
But his mother, Adrienne Ratigan, a Lake Placid psychotherapist, insists, “Dylan is really an Adirondacker…. He is very much formed by his experiences here.”
Dylan was born in Saranac Lake in 1972 and spent most of his childhood there. Although visits to his maternal grandparents in New York City convinced him from a young age that he was destined to leave the mountains, he credits his small-town upbringing for two key components of his world view.
The ﬁrst is an understanding of the importance of preserving wild places. “That was really drilled into me by growing up in the Adirondack Park,” he says. As a kid he ﬁshed, hiked, canoed and skied, activities he still enjoys on trips home.
The other big inﬂuence was the poverty he witnessed in his hometown and the surrounding area. “You get a tremendous exposure to how real the struggle for survival is among the average person,” he says. His passion for the subject comes through when he rails against the corruptive role of money in government or the unfairness of the tax code. (His New York Times bestseller, Greedy Bastards, was released in January.)
His own upbringing was comfortable but far from afﬂuent. His father, John Ratigan, left when Dylan was four, and Adrienne raised him as a single parent. She worked as a baker to afford a $10,000 cottage on Old Military Road, on the back of Mount Pisgah; Dylan earned spending money from a paper route and, in high school, a job in the kitchen at Whiteface Inn, on Lake Placid.
His boyhood friend Cy Ellsworth, now a counselor and coach at their alma mater, Saranac Lake High School, says as boys they used to build snow forts, ﬁsh, and ride bikes that they had saved up to buy themselves. “Nothing was given to either one of us on a silver platter,” he says. “I think it’s what made him so driven.”
If they played with Matchbox cars, Ellsworth recalls, Dylan always went straight for the Porsche. On a recent visit home, the television personality swung by his old pal’s place. “When he pulled up in my driveway in a black 911,” Ellsworth says, “I thought, He’s really made it.”
Adrienne, as soft-spoken as her son is booming, says it never surprised her that Dylan would be in the public eye or in a position of inﬂuence. “In terms of power, we were neck and neck by the time he was four…. He’s probably the most persistent person I’ve met.”
Dylan was an honor-roll student but not always easy to have in class. Adrienne recounts the time in middle school that he pilfered a pinky bone from the skeleton in science class, then sneaked it into the batter for a cooking-class project and added “one bone” to the list of ingredients. Adrienne received a phone call from the principal saying that Dylan “was exhibiting very weird behavior.”
While still in grade school, Dylan became involved in the newly formed Pendragon Theatre, appearing in several of the well-regarded playhouse’s productions. Later, he also worked on the technical crew. “It was a big part of his life,” Adrienne says. “That’s really where he got his start in show business.”
But his on-air eruptions aren’t an act. Between the boisterous Irish-Catholic Ratigans and Adrienne’s immigrant parents—a Hungarian-Jewish father and an Italian mother—Dylan “doesn’t have a drop of cool blood in him,” she says.
The Ratigans’ Adirondack roots date back to the mid-19th century, when Patrick Ratigan opened a bar catering to fur trappers and loggers in Irishtown, near Minerva. Frank Ratigan, Dylan’s grandfather, was a pharmacist who moved to Saranac Lake in the early 1950s to work at the Ray Brook tuberculosis hospital. The garrulous, hard-drinking father of 10 was a well-known character, often seen around town in his bowler hat. He served as mayor of Saranac Lake from 1957 to 1961; the Mayor Frank Ratigan Memorial Bridge over the Saranac River was dedicated in 1999.
As the Democratic mayor, Frank once donned boxing gloves—a gift commending his “pugilistic and tenacious party characteristics,” according to an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise—at a meeting with the Republican-dominated village board.
Frank’s son Jim (Dylan’s uncle) says his father was a shrewd mayor who would go around offering nips of whiskey to the snowplow drivers. “So the workers liked him, but at the same time he was checking on how the plowing was going.”
According to Jim, Frank sobered up by the time Dylan was a child and was a loving presence in his grandson’s life.
Adrienne says that Dylan inherited his grandfather’s quick wit. She recalls that Frank hung a picture in his living room of his son Pat, a priest, taken with Pope John Paul II in Rome. Underneath he added the caption, “Aren’t you Frank Ratigan’s son?”
Adrienne has become accustomed to seeing her son in the spotlight. But she says that longtime friends of the Ratigans sometimes tell her they feel like they’re in on an inside joke when they watch Dylan on television, as they spot his telltale family mannerisms and traits. “They say, ‘Oh my God, now here’s a Ratigan on prime time.’”
The Dylan Ratigan Show airs weekdays at 4:00 p.m. EST on MSNBC.
Read “An Adirondack-Irish Drinking Song” on Adirondack Life‘s Past Life blog and hear a ditty about Patrick Ratigan’s Irishtown pub.