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 wo...