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Remembering an 'American Life'

by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

Ronald Wilson Reagan
February 6, 1911 –
June 5, 2004

Just as she has bravely done for the past decade, Nancy Reagan spoke on behalf of her family, informing citizens of this country and the world with an update on her husband’s condition. On Saturday, her words marked the end of an era and the beginning of a very public period of mourning for America.

“My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has passed away after ten years of Alzheimer’s, at 93 years of age,” the former first lady said in a statement. “We appreciate everyone’s prayers over the years.”

Reaction to the news was heartfelt and swift. World and local leaders wired their condolences to Mrs. Reagan as more than 40,000 citizens headed to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley to pay their last respects to a man many credit with restoring pride and optimism in America after a period of doubt.

In France for a commemoration of the World War II “D-Day” invasion in France, President George Bush issued a proclamation that declared June 11 as a National Day of Mourning and directed that all American flags be flown at half-mast for a period of 30 days.

“Ronald Reagan won America’s respect with his greatness, and won its love with his goodness. He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility, and the humor that comes with wisdom. He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save,” Bush remarked. “During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt. And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny. Now, in laying our leader to rest, we say thank you.”

In Missouri, Governor Bob Holden issued an executive order honoring Bush’s proclamation and announced that state-run offices would close on Friday. Holden said the measure was “in keeping Missouri’s tradition of honoring our presidents in this fashion.” Missouri closed state offices at the time of President Lyndon Johnson’s death in 1973 and President Harry Truman’s passing in 1972.

Missouri Congressman Sam Graves issued a statement that said he was saddened by Reagan’s death.

“He made us laugh and made us think about the role of government in our lives, often at the same time,” Graves wrote. “Very few leaders can claim the kind of accomplishments that he can. He grew the economy, strengthened the military, brought back America’s confidence, won the cold war and was an outstanding husband and father. He was one of our greatest presidents. The shining city on the hill will continue on, but for now with a heavy heart.”

Platte County Commissioner Steve Wegner reflected on what Reagan meant to him.

“I grew up in the era of Vietnam, then we rolled into Watergate and then we rolled in the Carter era of high interest rates, high inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. We had lost our vision. Ronald Reagan made me proud to be an American again. That was by far his greatest achievement for me.”

An American life

The man that was destined to become the 40th president of the United States was born in 1911 at Tampico, Illinois. As a child, the young Reagan excelled at football, track and basketball. A renowned lifeguard, he was credited with saving more than 70 lives from drowning in a local river swimming spot. His father, John Reagan, was an Irish immigrant that suffered from alcoholism. As a result, Reagan rarely drank throughout his life.

Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932 with a degree in economics and pursued a radio career, announcing spring training baseball games for the Chicago Cubs under the moniker of “Dutch” Reagan. He acquired an agent and after a successful screen test, signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers in 1937. In 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman and starred in what is his most memorable movie, “Knute Rockne: All-American,” playing the role of George “The Gipper” Gipp.

During World War II, Reagan was kept out of active combat due to poor eyesight. Reagan instead joined the Air Force Motion Picture unit where he performed in training films for the bombing units. After the war, Reagan became the member of the Screen Actor’s Guild of America, a position he would hold for six terms, retiring in 1960. It was here that Reagan became known as a staunch anti-communist, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist infiltration of the movie industry.

Wyman and Reagan divorced in 1948, but later that same year, Reagan met Nancy Davis. Davis was sent to meet Reagan after she learned her name was on a Communist blacklist. With his help, Davis’ name was cleared (after it was discovered there were two Nancy Davis’ in Hollywood). The two become fast friends and they married in 1952.

In 1980, Reagan won 44 states to beat then President Jimmy Carter in a landslide for the presidency. One year later, Reagan survived an assassination attempt and his mixture of humor and courage throughout the ordeal saw his popularity rise to record highs. Reagan capitalized on his popularity, passing his economic recovery plan through a Democrat congress – something all pundits thought couldn’t be done. The program lowered taxes and increased defense spending. In addition, Reagan completely revamped the American tax code, lowering the top-rate dramatically and exempting millions of the lowest income Americans. Under Reagan, more than 19 million jobs were created in what was considered the largest peacetime expansion in American history.

Reagan also put terrorists on alert after being sworn in, promising to strike back if Americans were ever threatened. Reagan invaded Grenada and attacked Libya for such reasons. After the smoke cleared, Reagan remarked at the time that terrorists had “counted on America to be passive…they counted wrong.”

Despite warnings to temper his rhetoric, Reagan stuck with his long-forged principles of fighting communism, once going so far as to call them the “Evil Empire.” His hard-line negotiations with the Soviet Union produced some of the largest nuclear treaties between the two countries.


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