DISCOVERING TALENTS, DEVELOPING STRENGTHS
Early Years in Tampico, Dixon, and Eureka, Illinois, 1911–32
What does the YMCA mean to Dixon? … [I]t is the place where future Americans receive training, morally, mentally, physically. The future of the country rests with the boys of today. They will be the men of tomorrow.
—Dixon Evening Telegraph
, November 10, 1922 H
E WAS a gifted athlete with a powerful build and a straight-A student, when he put his mind to it. He had a streak of independence his mother termed “brassiness”1 and an offbeat sense of humor. Widely considered a natural leader and talented actor, friends and neighbors predicted he was headed for a promising career on the stage. His name was Neil Reagan and he had a shy, scrawny, insecure, little brother named Ronald.
Neil was nicknamed “Moon” by schoolmates. He reminded them of “Moon Mullins”—a tough-talking but good-natured cartoon character who parted his hair in the center. Moon, like his father, was a strong extrovert. He loved pool halls and hanging out with his gang.
At Ronald’s birth, his father declared him “a little bit of a fat Dutchman!” The name stuck. As a child, Dutch Reagan spent hours staring at birds’ eggs and butterflies—he was mesmerized by the mysteries of nature—and made regular trips to the library. But while still in their teens, the Reagan boys, in effect, swapped birth-order positions when Dutch, the thoughtful, “doggedly determined,”2 initiator, set his sights on going to college and dragged Moon along in his wake.
In a rare introspective mood in his seventies, Moon reminisced about his college days, “It’s a funny thing, and I guess I’ve really never gotten over it completely. I automatically became the younger brother.”3 The diffident but persistent younger child had overtaken his more gifted sibling—in a biblical twist of fate, Jacob was again chosen over Esau.
The boys were children of America’s heartland, born and raised—but for one brief urban interlude—in towns that rise like beacons amid the seemingly endless cornfields and farms of northwestern Illinois. The Reagan brothers grew up in a world of unlocked doors; a world of we and us, not they and them. Ronald Reagan long remembered those towns as places where “almost everybody knew one another, and because they knew one another, they tended to care about each other.”4
Early on, Dutch absorbed values that stayed with him for a lifetime. As a little boy with no living grandparents, he was “adopted” by kind neighbors. Local druggist “Uncle Jim” Greenman and his wife, “Aunt Emma,” gave Dutch daily doses of chocolate and cookies, a generous weekly allowance of ten cents, and a plump rocking chair for after-school reading as his parents clerked in a store nearby. With the skewed perspective of childhood, Reagan, in his 1965 autobiography, described the Greenmans as “elderly.” They were in their midfifties when he lived next door to them—his age at the time he was just starting to think about running for public office.
In the close-knit communities of his youth, the future governor and president witnessed “how the love and common sense of purpose that unites families is one of the most powerful glues on earth and that it can help them overcome the greatest of adversities. I learned that hard work is an essential part of life—that by and large, you don’t get something for nothing—and that America was a place that offered unlimited opportunity to those who did work hard.”5 Early in life, Dutch Reagan came to appreciate there are universal values. He believed everyone wanted “freedom and liberty, peace, love and security, a good home, and a chance to worship God in our own way; we all want the chance to work at a job of our own choosing and to be fairly rewarded for it and the opportunity to control our own destiny.”6
Today the one-block commercial district of Tampico, Illinois, is lined with boarded-up businesses and shuttered storefronts. But once upon a time a wave of prosperity flooded the tiny town and drew a young couple named Reagan there in search of a brighter future.
The town’s burst of affluence was an unlikely outgrowth of the 1825 opening of New York’s wildly successful Erie Canal. Overnight the canal transformed New York into an economic powerhouse by connecting the vast natural resources of the Midwest with the insatiable markets of the East Coast. Illinois businessmen and farmers were soon conjuring up ways to get their goods to market faster, cheaper, and more profitably.
In 1832, a proposal was put forth to connect Chicago directly to the nation’s premier port, New Orleans, via a superhighway of rivers. Budget concerns, competing interests, and war delayed the start of construction until canals were obsolete. The Hennepin Canal was doomed before the first shovel of dirt was finally dug in 1892. By then, railroads had superseded canals. Still the project pressed forward with construction of two canals that linked three rivers—the Illinois, the Mississippi, and the Rock. Tampico, ideally situated halfway along the shorter canal, seemed poised for an all-but-inevitable explosion of growth.
As digging started, Tampico’s soon-to-be-tycoons were gleeful. They dreamed of rising profits and real estate values and planned extravagant building campaigns. Up went a “costly and imposing” church, a string of new houses, and the grandest home for miles around. Overeager investors built a railroad but failed to secure the necessary rights of way. Their stunted fourteen-mile effort only succeeded in connecting Tampico—peak population fourteen hundred—to two even smaller towns.
For a while the future looked bright. Tampico’s energetic entrepreneur Henry C. Pitney combined and enlarged two existing stores. In 1906, at the peak of the bubble, he hired twenty-three-year old John (Jack) Reagan, who arrived from nearby Fulton with eight years of retail experience and a wife, Nelle Wilson Reagan.7 Shortly after the couple settled in, the town’s population started a slow decline as construction teams moved on and the canal failed to lure business from the railroads that rushed past on tracks laid a few miles to the north of the tiny enclave. Dreams of glory withered and died and Tampico shrank back to a small-market town serving the needs of farms that circled the once, ever so briefly, prosperous community.
Ronald Reagan’s ancestors arrived in northwestern Illinois when it was still the edge of America’s frontier. Like many immigrants, they were drawn to the arable land the federal government was giving away for free to settlers willing to farm it. The Wilsons made their way to Whiteside County from Scotland through Canada in the early years of the nineteenth century when the area’s economy consisted of subsistence farming, with little cash changing hands. The Reagans arrived from Ireland via England in the 1850s just as the intricate iron web spun by the railways changed the rural landscape forever. Emerging technologies were sweeping away the old world order and sparking developments in farming and commerce. In Whiteside County, a young blacksmith, John Deere, worked late nights to develop a plow that cut through the area’s “sticky” soil. Across the river in Iowa, an enterprising immigrant named Friedrich Weyerhaeuser started a lumber business.
Though very different in personality, Nelle Wilson and Jack Reagan had a strong common bond: early loss. Jack’s parents died in their thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind four young children to be raised by their grandmother Catherine Reagan and aunts Margaret (Maggie) and Mary. Fortunately, the Reagan women had a flair for business. They established a millinery business in Fulton in the 1880s. When Maggie married, she moved away and expanded the business to other locations. In Fulton, their shop did well enough to hire a clerk. While working in the Reagans’ shop in Fulton, Nelle Wilson met Jack Reagan.
Nelle’s father, Thomas Wilson, walked away from his farm and deserted his wife and children in 1889 when Nelle was six. Her mother packed up her family and moved to Fulton where Nelle, the youngest, grew up with the support of her siblings. Nelle’s mother, Mary Anne Wilson, died when Nelle was seventeen. Her father lived until December 1909, but it was her brother Alexander who gave her away when she married John Edward Reagan on November 8, 1904, at Fulton’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. They were both twenty-one.
Ronald Reagan remembered his father as “burning with ambition to succeed.”8 Jack was handsome, dapper, expansive, flamboyant, and charming. Dutch admired his flair for telling jokes and stories and considered him “the best raconteur I ever heard.” It was a talent Dutch worked hard to emulate and used to great effect in his own career. But Jack was also a “cynic who expected the worst in people.” A “one match a day man,” he smoked three packs of cigarettes daily, lighting one from the end of another.
Jack’s outward bravado concealed an inner weakness: he was a binge drinker who disappeared for days at a time. Nelle drilled into her boys that their father’s problem was a sickness that he couldn’t help and that they shouldn’t hold it against him. But Jack’s drinking was a source of embarrassment and concern to his family. One evening Jack staggered home drunk, his car nowhere in sight. Dutch backtracked his father’s path and found the car in the middle of a street with the motor still running. Moon said Jack was “his own worst enemy. He talked or worked himself out of nearly every job he had.… He spent it as fast as he made it. He was quite a gambler and he liked the bottle.”9 Jack Reagan burned through a string of jobs. His earnings peaked at fifty-five dollars a week as a shoe salesman. Nelle helped out by taking in sewing and working as a salesclerk.
Despite Jack’s failings, as a small businessman with an entrepreneurial spirit, he managed to teach his sons the value of hard work, initiative, and enterprise. From Jack, the boys picked up a love of sports. An ardent Democrat, he was passionate about the rights of the working man and loathed bigotry in any form, having borne the brunt of much of it as an Irish Catholic. To his older son, he passed along his convivial nature and drinking problem. He had the opposite effect on his younger son. Jack’s example of squandering opportunities instilled in Dutch a steely determination and self-discipline that led to extraordinary success.
Ronald Reagan attributed his success to his wiry, auburn-haired mother, who had “a sense of optimism that ran as deep as the cosmos.”10 From Nelle, Reagan learned “the value of prayer” and “how to have dreams and believe that I could make them come true.” In the 1960s, Reagan summed up Nelle’s outlook on life in a note sent to Nancy Reagan: “God has a plan and it isn’t for us to understand, only to know that He has His reasons and because He is all merciful and all loving we can depend on it that there is a purpose in whatever He does and it is for our own good. What you must understand without any question or doubt is that I believe this and trust Him and you must, too.”11
For Nelle, faith wasn’t something to talk about or do on a Sunday morning; it was a way of life. She was lively and spunky, with a can-do attitude, and no one ever described her as “preachy.” She was too much fun for that. “She simply served God by serving people.”12 Raised in an era when people’s only source of entertainment was one another, she made weekly visits to hospitals to read to patients and play her banjo. With funds provided by her sons, she brought patients “food, candy, pens, and pencils.” More important, she brought hope and encouragement. Nelle took hot meals to prisoners and gave them practical help. The Reagans took in newly released convicts, giving them a place to stay and help finding jobs. Nelle firmly believed that “no matter what a person had done, he should be given the chance to pick himself up again.”13
When Moon’s Bel Air home burned to the ground in a 1961 wildfire, with scarcely a moment’s notice, the only belongings his wife thought to save were a box of silverware and Nelle’s well-thumbed, held-together-by-tape Bible. When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president of the United States on January 20, 1981, his hand was on Nelle’s Bible, opened to II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” In the margin, Nelle had jotted, “A most wonderful verse for the healing of nations.”14 On his desk in the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan kept a small maroon leather plaque with his mother’s mantra embossed in gold, “It CAN be done.” Nelle’s granddaughter Maureen Reagan recalled, “She had the gift of making you believe that you could change the world.”15
At the time of her marriage, though, Nelle was an indifferent Protestant. By heritage, the Wilsons were Scots Presbyterian. While living on the farm, they attended a local Methodist Episcopal church. When Nelle married Jack in the Catholic Church, she was required to promise to raise their children as Roman Catholics. When her first son, John Neil Reagan, was born on September 16, 1908, she dutifully took him to be baptized. But by the time Ronald was born on February 6, 1911, something had changed. St. Mary’s pastor, Father Du Four, came to see her about having Ronald baptized. She had no memory of any discussion, much less a promise, to raise the children as Roman Catholics. Jack backed her up.
Between the births of her boys, Nelle had developed a stronger sense of faith. In February 1910, four years after moving to Tampico, she joined the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples16 believe Christians should be united as one big family. Founded as “a faith which is socially relevant and intellectually sound,” the Disciples pride themselves on being open-minded, independent thinkers who believe in community and providing practical care to the needy. Where Jack Reagan failed, the Disciples stepped in and provided Dutch with a nurturing support system of role models, friends, and mentors.
In late 1913, as business in Tampico slowed and receipts ebbed, H. C. Pitney, Jack Reagan’s employer, decided to sell his store and thereby triggered the wild roller-coaster ride through towns, jobs, and homes that defined Ronald Reagan’s childhood. Over the next five years, the Reagans lived in five communities and the boys attended five separate schools.
Their first stop was Chicago, where Jack worked for The Fair Store, a twelve-story, discount department store—a forerunner of Kresge and Kmart—at the corner of State and Adams streets in the Loop. The family, used to the space and grass of rural life, moved to an apartment on the city’s South Side. The experiment in urban living didn’t last long. For the first time, but not the last, Jack was fired for drinking.
By May 1915, the family was on a train heading to Galesburg, Illinois. Thanks to family connections, Jack got a job as a shoe salesman at O. T. Johnson’s Big Store, the “biggest, best and busiest store” in town. Galesburg, population twenty-four thousand, offered the Reagans a life right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The Big Store sponsored employee picnics and costume parties. The town had a minor league baseball team, opera house, YMCA, and a good-size library. Everything was in walking distance: school for the boys, work for Jack, and church for Nelle.
With his mother’s encouragement, Dutch learned to read before starting school—“One evening all the funny black marks on paper clicked into place.”17 His proud parents dragged neighbors over to witness their five-year old’s first public performance. In Galesburg, Dutch completed first grade with a 95 percent overall average and 97 percent in reading.
Life in Galesburg sparked Dutch’s “great naturalist” phase. Nearby there was an open field to explore. Tucked away in the wonderful, dusty attic there was a fascinating collection of birds’ eggs and butterflies that inspired Dutch to set about gathering his own collection. The idyll in Galesburg lasted for less than four years. In 1918, Jack was again fired for drinking.
Their next stop was twenty miles to the southwest, Monmouth, Illinois, a pocket edition of Galesburg. There, Dutch skipped a grade in school and caught a glimpse of college life. Monmouth College was down the street. In Monmouth, Jack developed a taste for dealing with luxury goods while working at high-end department store E. B. Colwell. And Nelle almost died.
They’d arrived in Monmouth as the second wave of the 1918 flu epidemic erupted in Boston and raced across the country. In October alone, 195,000 Americans died of the virus. Young women of childbearing age were particularly hard hit; one was Nelle Reagan. Dutch’s abiding memory of their stay in Monmouth was the QUARANTINE signs hanging from doorways. For days Nelle hovered close to death. Then, unexpectedly, she survived. She was certain she had been saved to spread the gospel—love God and love one another.
That spring, Jack’s former employer H. C. Pitney bought back his old business in Tampico and contacted Jack with the offer of a raise and an expanded role as buyer and manager of the shoe department. The Reagans had made a complete circle. They were back to where Jack and Nelle had started out, in an apartment on Main Street in Tampico. The Tornado
heralded their return: “Mr. Reagan and family formerly resided in Tampico and have many friends who will welcome them back.”
Jack’s career seemed poised for growth. He was traveling on business, attending conventions, and building a network of industry contacts. He now billed himself as a graduate of Dr. Scholl’s school of “Practipedics.” He was earning a dollar a day at Pitney’s. The Reagans’ apartment cost ten dollars a month and they had close to one hundred dollars in savings in the bank. Nelle clerked at Pitney’s, taught Sunday school, and helped the needy. In May 1920, Dutch made his stage debut at a church event reciting a poem, “About Mother.” In June, he was back with another poem, “The Sad Dollar and the Glad Dollar.”
During the summer of 1920, nine-year-old Dutch learned to swim and a new industry—radio—was emerging. Both had far-reaching consequences for Ronald Reagan. That summer, Tampico businessmen taught Dutch how to swim in the recently completed Hennepin Canal. The canal’s shallow waters had proven unexpectedly treacherous, especially for young children. When a distant, unseen lock was opened up to let a barge through, the normally placid water suddenly switched to raging. After a couple of small children drowned, local fathers banded together to teach youngsters how to protect themselves against the turbulence.
Swimming gave Dutch his first taste of athletic success. He hadn’t realized yet that he had terrible eyesight. Team sports were difficult for him, because he couldn’t see the ball coming toward him. He was always the last picked for any team. Swimming, though, took advantage of his innate persistence. He worked at it and got better, stronger, and fitter. As a teenager he set a record in a timed race across Dixon’s Rock River that stood for years.
Meanwhile, six hundred miles away, a new industry was flickering into existence in a shack on the roof of an industrial building in East Pittsburgh. A 1912 barroom bet on the accuracy of his watch prompted self-taught inventor and Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad to build a radio capable of receiving time signals from the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Conrad won the bet, kept tinkering and, in the summer of 1916, started playing records on Saturday nights from his garage. His “regularly scheduled” broadcasts were picked up by fellow experimenters twirling their dials along the spectrum of radio waves. Conrad’s broadcasts sparked a demand for radio receivers in the Pittsburgh area.
Ironically, at the time, Westinghouse researchers were wrestling with how to keep “radio phone calls” private. Glancing at a newspaper one day, Conrad’s boss, H. P. Davis, noticed an ad for ten-dollar “receiving sets.” In a flash of inspiration, he saw that the opportunity lay in the opposite direction from the company’s research efforts. Future profits would come from making access to radio broadcasts widely available, not in trying to contain them. Westinghouse was soon in the business of manufacturing radios.
The next challenge was to create a demand—a market—for their invention. They hit on the strategy of making a splashy debut on election night 1920, broadcasting the voting results of the contest between Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Throughout the summer and early fall, Davis and his team worked feverishly to get licensed and up and running. With less than a week to go, they made it. Using a system designed for ships and maritime shore stations, America’s first radio station got its call letters, KDKA. On election night, November 2, 1920, radio moved “out of the back pages into the front headlines.”18 KDKA Pittsburgh made its inaugural broadcast and entered history as the “first regularly scheduled, nonexperimental outlet.” Dutch was enthralled by the new technology. He long remembered the excitement of huddling in a room with a dozen others, listening to the station’s primitive broadcast attempts with “breathless attention.” DISCOVERING TALENTS—DIXON, ILLINOIS
A sale at Pitney’s in early 1920 was a warning sign that all was not well with the business. By September, after a little more than a year back in business, Pitney announced he was closing up in Tampico and moving to Dixon, thirty miles northeast, population eight thousand. In short order he leased space in Dixon and named Mr. J. E. Reagan manager of a new store selling “high grade foot wear.” It was the fifth shoe store in town. There seems to have been an unwritten agreement that eventually Jack Reagan would become a partial owner of Pitney’s business with future profits that sadly never materialized. The community’s booming wartime economy had stalled and farm bankruptcies were skyrocketing. Their timing could hardly have been worse.
For Dutch, the move meant yet another new school. In his autobiography, he wrote that the many moves left “a mark,” and by the time they settled into a house on South Hennepin Avenue he “was a little introverted and probably a little slow in making really close friends.”19 In Dixon, though, he finally found some stability. “All of us have to have a place we go back to; Dixon is that place for me.”20 Over the next sixteen years, the Reagans moved four times within Dixon: to a busier street; to a smaller house; to a second-floor apartment where Jack and Nelle, at one point, squeezed themselves into one room and took in a boarder; and finally to a small apartment above a shoe store.
But in December 1920, they were back to living on a wide street shaded by tall trees with broad lawns for pick-up football games. The house, close to the top of a hill, was a few blocks from the grammar school where Dutch attended fifth and sixth grades and Dixon’s Public Library, where Nelle took her boys to register for library cards a few weeks after moving in. Jack had an easy commute to the Fashion Boot Shop, and Nelle threw herself into church activities. Ronald Reagan recalled, “It was a good life. I never have asked for anything more, then or now.” When his parents announced in early 1923 they were moving to Dixon’s more fashionable North Side, Moon dug in his heels and refused to change schools.
The cloud hanging over the family was Jack’s drinking. A year after moving to Dixon, Dutch was forced to deal directly with his father’s alcoholism for the first time. Trudging home through the snow from the Dixon Y in the dusk, he nearly tripped over his father passed out on the front porch of their home “drunk, dead to the world. I stood over him for a minute or two. I wanted to let myself in the house and go to bed and pretend he wasn’t there.” Up to then, Nelle or Moon had dealt with Jack’s drinking problem, but on that cold, wintry evening, it was up to a fifth-grader. Reagan later wrote: “Someplace along the line to each of us, I suppose, must come that first moment of accepting responsibility. If we don’t accept it (and some don’t), then we must just grow older without quite growing up.”21 It was a life-defining moment for Dutch, who proceeded to set himself consciously on a path to success.
He was becoming increasingly aware of the loud arguments between his parents, his father’s bewildering disappearances, and his mother’s abrupt decisions to take her sons to visit relatives. Once his eyes were opened to his father’s problem, Dutch turned to books for help in figuring out who he wanted to be. He found his first role model in Gilbert Patten’s wildly successful Frank Merriwell series.
Published as “dime novels,” the Merriwell books flew off the shelves, selling at the rate of 135,000 copies a week. The hero’s name, according to Patten, hints at his sterling qualities—frank, merry, and abounding with good health. Dutch gobbled up the stories about the Yale undergrad who attends classes, solves mysteries, and rights wrongs while racking up triumphs in football, baseball, basketball, track, and crew. Patten once joked that Merriwell “had little in common with his creator or his readers.” In the case of Dutch Reagan, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Handicapped by his poor eyesight (his vision was 20/200) and short of height and heft at five feet three inches and 108 pounds, Dutch was an unlikely candidate for athletic prowess. Yet, he persisted. In his 1990 autobiography, An American Life
, he wrote: “I began to dream of myself on a college campus, wearing a college jersey, even as a star on the football team. My childhood dream was to become like those guys in the books.”22
A few months after finding his father passed out on the porch, Dutch picked up a book his mother was reading, That Printer of Udell’s
, by a one-time Disciples of Christ minister, Harold Bell Wright.23 The 1902 book was an enormous best seller. Wright was more than the first author to sell more than a million copies of a book and earn more than a million dollars from writing. That Printer of Udell’s
left Dutch with “an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.”
The story was a largely autobiographical. When Wright was eleven, his mother died, leaving her three sons, the youngest of whom was two, at the mercy of their alcoholic father, who scattered his sons among reluctant caretakers and took off, seemingly without a care. Harold, the middle child, was put to work for a farmer “like an unwanted puppy.” As a teenager, Wright lived with strangers, in saloons, in a brothel (with his father), plowed fields, tended sheep, slept in haystacks, and one night, in a pounding gale, under a hedge. In the fictionalized, streamlined version of his story, near starvation, scorned as a bum, he fell into the hands of a good-hearted printer who gave him a job and a life. Wright changed one letter to come up with his fictional occupation: in real life, as a youth, he’d worked on a construction crew as a painter.
In a key scene, the once dirty tramp who had “gone from door to door seeking a chance to earn a crust of bread” is now an admired citizen, a “tall, well-built figure, neatly clothed in a business suit of brown.” As he walks onstage to speak in favor of establishing a young people’s aid society, the audience bursts “into involuntary applause” at the sight of him. In the book’s final scene, the printer, recently elected to Congress, is about to set off for Washington with his beautiful wife.
In That Printer of Udell’s
, Wright railed against organized religion and churchgoers for “pretending to be what they are not.” He wrote that the church “was not touching the great problems of life; and that, while men were dying for want of spiritual bread, she was offering them only the stones of ecclesiastical pride and denominational egotism.”
A few days after finishing the book, Dutch asked to be baptized. In June 1922, he and Neil, with twenty-three others, were baptized by Disciples minister Reverend David Franklin Seyster, filling in on short notice between the sudden death of Reverend Harvey Garland Waggoner and the appointment of Reverend Benjamin Cleaver. Waggoner and Cleaver were important influences on Dutch and he long remembered Seyster’s words at his baptism, paraphrasing Romans 6:4: “Arise, and walk in the newness of faith.”
For Dutch, navigating a lonely path through life, Dixon’s faith-based organizations provided tremendous support. His church, the YMCA, a youth group called Christian Endeavor, and summer Chautauquas opened up opportunities for him to grow physically, spiritually, intellectually, and socially. After-school activities gave him a way to make friends, meet real-life role models, and start developing his strengths and testing his talents. He started to evolve into the person that he wanted to be. As he put it, “It was in Dixon that I really found myself.”24
At the Y, Dutch joined the band, improved his swimming, got certified as a lifeguard, and participated in the Boys Hi-Y, whose motto was “Clean Speech, Clean Sports, Clean Living, and Clean Scholarship.” Christian Endeavor’s motto was “love and service.” The organization was created to provide a network of mutual support for teenagers. Alcoholics Anonymous was modeled on CE. AA founder Bill Wilson’s parents were early members. In 1928, CE provided seventeen-year-old Ronald Reagan with a pivotal moment in his career when he was chosen to act as master of ceremonies at a CE conference in Moline, Illinois. The experience reinforced his sense that he had a flair for public speaking.
At church, Dutch met his closest friend and first love, Margaret (Mugs) Cleaver, his pastor’s youngest daughter. Though they attended different high schools—the Cleavers lived on Dixon’s South Side and the Reagans on the North—Dutch and Mugs got to know each other as costars in plays sponsored by the church and in the schools’ joint drama club. In their senior year, they worked on the combined yearbook and served in leadership positions—Dutch as student body president, Mugs as president of her class and member of the student council.
In Reverend Waggoner’s son, Garland, Dutch found a living blueprint—a real-life Frank Merriwell. Garland was active at the Y and at his father’s church, where he taught Sunday school and occasionally preached a sermon. More important, in Dutch’s eyes, Garland was a star football player at Dixon High and later in college at Eureka. Dutch’s admiration was boundless; he once commented, “I’m a sucker for hero worship.”25 He followed in Garland’s footsteps, teaching Bible lessons to younger children and leading church services. When Garland went off to Eureka College in the fall of 1922, Dutch’s path was laid out for him. The only question was how to finance it.
Life for a kid in 1920s, Dixon was a predictable circuit of home, school, and after-school activities, but every summer, a festival blew into town and provided a glimpse into a bigger and broader world. Known as Chautauquas, the programs brought rural communities world-class speakers such as Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Admiral Richard Byrd speaking on his “Antarctic Adventures,” and the pre-eminent Chautauqua speaker, William Jennings Bryan. Nelle, egged on by Reverend Cleaver, was at the center of planning and organizing the programs. Set on the edge of the river to catch the flowing breezes, the Rock River Assembly theater-in-the-round, built especially for the Chautauquas, held five thousand and had room for six hundred on stage.
Jack and Nelle had their differences, but in one area they were in complete agreement: They loved performing. They had wonderful voices: Jack’s singing voice was even better than Nelle’s “melodic” speaking voice. Dramatics was Nelle’s “first love.”26 Dutch described her as “the dean of dramatic recitals for the countryside.”27 In Tampico, Jack and Nelle starred in plays and founded a drama club. At a World War I fund-raiser in Galesburg, Jack astonished his boys by appearing onstage as a snake charmer in a wig and hula skirt.
Moon appeared to be the Reagan headed for the stage. Year after year, he starred in the Knights of Columbus’s three-night fund-raiser. Always outspoken and brimming with confidence, in his seventies, he couldn’t help laughing as he bragged, “I was always one of the leads. I was a song and dance man.”28
Awed by Moon’s talent, Dutch hesitated about appearing on stage. Buoyed by encouragement from Nelle, he made his Dixon debut. He couldn’t recall what he had said, but he long remembered the audience’s reaction, “People laughed and applauded. That was a new experience for me and I liked it. I liked that approval. For a kid suffering childhood pangs of insecurity, the applause was music. I didn’t know it then, but, in a way, when I walked off the stage that night, my life had changed.”29 His aunt was so impressed that she commented to Nelle, “If he was mine, I’d take him to Hollywood if I had to walk all the way.”30
Teaching Bible classes to young children gave Dutch a low-risk way of getting experience in front of an audience. He brought Bible verses to life by transforming the ancient parables to 1920s Dixon. He got so good at it that he was asked to lead the classes for adults when Reverend Cleaver was traveling. He got more experience and developed confidence by helping his mother entertain hospital patients. Their program was such a success that it was added to the hospital’s monthly schedule.31
The year Dutch was a sophomore at North Dixon High School, Bernard J. Fraser joined the faculty as an English teacher and drama coach. He set about teaching his students “method” acting, “forcing them to actually ‘become’ the character.”32 Fraser built a theater program around Dutch’s talent. Fraser encouraged his star to dig in and explore what his character was feeling and why he felt that way. In those days, Fraser remembered, Dutch was “forever asking questions.” He was already self-confident and in command onstage. Dutch’s dedication made an impression on his mentor and the two became lifelong friends.
Dixon had transformed Dutch from a timid little kid into a self-possessed young man. Prodded by his searching for a more promising father figure than Jack, Dutch developed a knack for attracting mentors and surrounding himself with people who encouraged and helped him be his best. It was one of his first talents to emerge and blossom. At church, at school, and in after-school activities, he nurtured his ability to be at ease in front of audiences. Sometimes consciously and sometimes just by doing what came naturally, he worked at honing his gift. DEVELOPING STRENGTHS—EUREKA COLLEGE, EUREKA, ILLINOIS
In the fall of 1928, Mugs Cleaver, following in her father and sisters’ footsteps, headed off to Eureka College. Dutch went along for the ride. For him, Eureka had taken on a golden glow ever since his hero Garland Waggoner had achieved gridiron greatness there. In a tranquil, timeless town, one hundred miles south of Dixon, the school’s redbrick buildings sit on a knoll flanked by trees. For Dutch, it was love at first sight. No longer shy or insecure, he jumped at the chance to live his dream of emulating Frank Merriwell and Garland Waggoner.
Exploring the campus, Dutch saw a college education could provide an escape from the dull rut that otherwise lay ahead. With some savings in the bank and a big dose of the charm and persuasiveness he’d inherited from Jack, he seized the opportunity to introduce himself to Eureka’s president, Bert Wilson, and the school’s football coach, Ralph McKinzie. He made the case that he’d be a great asset to the school as a football player and swimmer. His power of persuasion must have been impressive. He greatly overestimated his football ability, and the school didn’t even have a swimming team—but, in short order, Wilson and McKinzie arranged a scholarship to cover half his expenses and got him a job waiting tables and washing dishes in the girls’ dorm. Reagan later joked it was the best job he ever had.
Looking back, Reagan said, “One of the first things I found out about my particular college was that because of its size, we assumed a lot of assignments. Most of the time, we took a whole host of leadership roles simply because there was no one else to do it. It was my first taste of stepping forward and assuming responsibility for more than my own life, and I never forgot it. Sometimes, when I think of how little I knew about life, contrasted with how much responsibility I took on at Eureka, it makes me smile. But the college never let me do less than my best.”33 Twenty-five years after graduating, he gave the commencement address and exhorted students to “savor these moments. Keep the memories close to your heart.” At Eureka he found a supportive environment that encouraged him to develop his strengths.
Years later, after visiting many top universities, Reagan wrote, “If I had to do it over again, I’d go back to Eureka or another small college like it in a second.”34 He credited Eureka with teaching him how to get things done—a lesson that stayed with him. At a small school everyone has to chip in, “There’s a job for everyone, and everybody gets a chance to shine at something and build their sense of self-confidence.”35 He started and coached a swim team, won varsity letters in football, swimming, and track, won a drama contest, and, three months into his first semester, made a name for himself by leading a strike against Eureka’s administration.
Founded by the Disciples of Christ in 1855, Eureka from its beginnings recruited minority students, championed social justice, and was at the forefront of campaigning for women’s rights. Dutch, intending to major in economics, rapidly bonded with the college’s only, and recently appointed, economics professor, A. C. Gray. Nicknamed “Daddy” Gray, he was an ordained minister and “pretty far to the left.”36 In keeping with the Disciples’ philosophy of being open-minded, Gray invited onetime minister and future Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas to speak on campus. Eight hundred people showed up for the lecture. But in the classroom, Gray taught from the textbook of influential conservative Lewis Haney, who taught economics at New York University and wrote a syndicated column. “Daddy” Gray was the force behind Dutch’s rise to stardom.
Perpetually underfunded, like many church schools, Eureka teetered on the edge of financial disaster. Just before Thanksgiving, the already unpopular school president, after meeting with the trustees, announced impending program cuts without consulting the faculty or explaining the situation to the students. Wilson’s failure to reach out and gain the agreement of the larger community was a leadership and communication lesson that Dutch never forgot. The uproar was immediate.
Dutch, “encouraged and coached by ‘Daddy’ Gray whose job was at risk,”37 was at the center of the furor. The entire student body rallied in the auditorium. As a freshman with, the thinking went, less to lose than juniors and seniors, Dutch was pushed forward as the students’ spokesman. He took the stage, laid out the issues, called for a strike, and in an unforgettable moment, learned what it was like to be one with an audience. The room rocked. That night in the small world of Eureka Ronald Reagan became a star. The peaceful but determined strike made newspaper headlines around the country. On November 29, 1928, the New York Times
reported “Students Strike At Eureka College.” The freshman waiter and dishwasher on scholarship was transformed into a Big Man on Campus.
That success, however, didn’t transfer to the football field, where he spent his freshman season with his seat glued to the bench. The coach assessed him as too small, almost blind without his glasses, and with an unduly high opinion of his football talents. Dutch was so disappointed he almost didn’t return. He got to play his second year, but by then Moon had followed him to Eureka and trumped him on the football field. Moon, star of an undefeated high school team, made a flashy winning play in a key game, just the sort of play Dutch daydreamed about in his fantasies of Frank Merriwell and Notre Dame star George Gipp. Moon, on the other hand, had had enough of football. He never bothered to go out for the sport again.
In academic circles there is a saying about students’ career paths after graduation: “A’s teach and B’s work for C’s.”38 At Eureka, Dutch applied himself to extracurricular activities—student government, newspaper, swimming, basketball, football, debating, dramatics, and president of the Boosters Club. He graduated with a C average. His efforts were focused on outside interests, and in those he excelled. In his senior year, he was elected president of the Student Senate, but his biggest achievement came in his junior year, when he won an “Oscar” in an acting contest sponsored by Northwestern University’s Drama Department.
Under the guidance of a gifted coach, Miss Ellen Marie Johnson, for the first time Eureka’s drama society entered the competition against seasoned teams such as Princeton’s Triangle Club and the Yale Playhouse. In homemade costumes run up by coeds, Eureka scored an unlikely triumph, coming in second. In shock from the victory, Dutch was even more surprised to hear his own name called. For his role as a Greek shepherd boy who was strangled to death, he won the equivalent of a Best Actor award. He quipped, “Dying is the way to live in the theater.”39 Before Dutch headed back to Eureka, the head of Northwestern’s Drama Department called him aside to ask if he’d given any thought to a stage career. Up to that moment he hadn’t. The brief but gratifying conversation lingered in his mind and, in time, served as a spark.
The most valuable lesson he took away from his years at college was clarity about who he wanted to be. As he saw it, college was an investment that paid dividends for a lifetime. At Eureka he learned, matured, and developed the core strengths that he used for the next seventy years: a passion for fitness and sports, a deep and abiding faith, a fascination with economics, an interest in connecting with people as an entertainer, and an unshakeable conviction in the goodness of his fellow citizens. Before embarking on the unnerving project of finding a job, he spent one last summer as a lifeguard at Dixon’s Lowell Park.
Lowell Park, on the bank of the Rock River, was an idyllic spot for a young man to spend summers. Bluebells and ferns frame the entrance; wildflowers grow under the shade of oaks and hemlocks. Trails for horseback riding, bicycling, and hiking weave through the park’s 205 acres.
The job took advantage of his strong sense of responsibility and his ability to focus. Lowell Park gave him a way to meet successful executives and provided him with the achievement he was most proud of for the rest of his life: seventy-seven lives saved over the course of his seven years at the park, many recorded on the front page of the Dixon Telegraph
. His father suggested he keep track of his saves by carving a notch in a log each time he rescued someone.
Watching people all day long, he became a student of human nature. An early sign of his aptitude for communicating was an article, “Meditations of a Lifeguard,” that he wrote for his high school yearbook. “The lifeguard strolls by, turns and strolls by again.… He assumes a manly worried expression, designed to touch the heart of any blonde, brunette, or unclassified female. He has done all that is necessary. She speaks and the sound of her voice is like balm to a wounded soul.” He approached his job with more wisdom than might be expected in a teenager. Employer Ruth Graybill said, “He always knew his duties and he did them well.”40
During those summers from 1926 to 1932, Dutch added to his income by renting out a canoe and teaching young children to swim. Through the little swimmers, he got to know their grateful parents, a number of whom suggested he come see them about jobs when he finished college. But by the time he graduated from Eureka those job offers had dried up and the once-helpful executives had vanished—except for one, Sid Altschuler, an astute businessman from Kansas City, Missouri, who in that gloomy summer of 1932 offered Ronald Reagan the best advice he ever got.
REAGAN ON REAGAN
Some people called me the best football player on the worst team Dixon ever had.
—Speaking to Dixon high school students,Dixon Telegraph
, June 6, 1947
Our family didn’t exactly come from the wrong side of the tracks, but we were certainly always within sound of the train whistles.
—Where’s the Rest of Me?
I like to pay attention to one thing at a time.
—Where’s the Rest of Me?
DISCOVERING YOUR TALENTS, DEVELOPING YOUR STRENGTHS
A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.
Working It In
Make an investment in yourself by taking time to identify your core values and inner strengths. Consider what is most important to you.
Seek out role models for yourself in literature, history, and life. Identify the attributes that you admire.
Look for opportunities to try out your interests and strengths in nonthreatening, low-risk situations. Be prepared to practice, rehearse, fail, and try again. Sometimes you learn the most from failure.
Rise to challenges. Take advantage of opportunities to take on new responsibilities and move out of your comfort zone.
Develop a can-do attitude and believe in your dreams. Test your ability to achieve a goal by starting with a small project with a short time frame. Take baby steps.
Define you. Describe yourself briefly.
Reflecting on your successes and accomplishments to date, what have you most enjoyed?
List your five greatest strengths and interests.
List the five personal skills you most enjoy using.
How can you put these interests and talents to use in building a career?
© 2011 Margot Morrell