the roots of reagan's leadership
by Peter Hannaford
One day last year I gave a talk at the University of Virginia on the subject of President Ronald Reagan’s comprehensive strategy for bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion. When the floor opened for questions, I expected them to be about that topic. Instead, the first was, “Can you tell us the source of Reagan’s character?”
I replied, “In a word: Illinois.”
The characteristics we associate with Ronald Reagan—self-reliance, self-confidence, optimism, modesty, loyalty, tolerance, good humor, determination, and reverence for God—all came from his forebears, his parents, his teachers and coaches, clergy, the circumstances of his youth, and the culture of the rural Middle West. The Irish, Scots, English, and others who settled the fertile farmland of northwestern Illinois brought with them values ingrained over a long period of time. Most had worked the land and felt attached to it, though they were tenant farmers. They took hard work for granted, along with thrift, family loyalty, and self-reliance. Owning their own land in America was a goal.
In Reagan’s case, it began with his great-grandparents. On the Reagan side, they fled the Irish Potato Famine, ending up in Illinois’ New Haven township. His great-grandfather learned about the Homestead Act. He filed a claim, knowing that if he made the land productive in four years, it would be his. In the 1860 Census, he was listed as a farmer owning real estate. His son worked on the family’s land and then moved to Fulton where his youngest son John (known as “Jack”) was born and was to become Ronald Reagan’s father.
Ronald Reagan’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side landed in Nova Scotia from Scotland and then made his way to Illinois. His son married a young woman who came to America to work as a domestic after her parents died. Their daughter Nelle was to be Ronald Reagan’s mother. She was bright, energetic, and imbued with a strong drive to help people through her religion.
As a young man, Jack discovered a liking for alcohol. Despite his ability to charm the town’s young women, most parents disapproved of him. Nelle, however, was determined to put aside the objections. She and Jack married in 1904. Nelle became used to Jack’s weekend drinking. She seemed to understand that what Jack was seeking was recognition that he was a worthwhile person. She decided they needed to leave Fulton and persuaded Jack to move to Tampico, 26 miles away. There he was hired by a local dry goods store.
They rented a flat above a bakery. Their first son, John Neil, was born there in 1908. A Catholic priest came to baptize the infant. Jack, a Catholic, had said nothing about this to Nelle, a dedicated member of the Christian Church, a schismatic Presbyterian denomination. Nelle agreed to the baptism, but made Jack promise that once their children were old enough they could choose their own religion.
Jack was a good shoe salesman, but his career never seemed to gel. This led to a number of moves: briefly to Chicago, then Galesburg, then Monmouth, then back to Tampico, where his original boss offered to give him a promotion and then part ownership in a store in Dixon.
They made the final move—to Dixon—in 1920.
On February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born as a blizzard swept the region. At the sight of his new 10-pound son, Jack is quoted as having said, “For such a little bit of a Dutchman, he makes a hell of a lot of noise.” Thus Ronald acquired the nickname “Dutch.” It stuck with him until he reached Hollywood 26 years later.
With Jack’s good humor and sense of egalitarianism and Nelle’s religious training that all people were created equal, the boys grew up in a household free of envy or prejudice. Looking back on his childhood years later, Ronald Reagan said, “We were pretty poor, but so was everyone else we knew, so we didn’t think of ourselves as poor.”
When Ronald was four or five, Nelle began to teach him to read by having him follow her finger as it went down the page while she recited. One evening Jack saw him look at the day’s paper and asked him what he was doing. “Reading,” he said and read aloud a story from the paper. His fifth grade teacher, Nellie Darby, who had a strong influence on him, remarked on his great ability to remember dates and places.
Once settled in Dixon, the boys developed hobbies and enjoyed sports. “Dutch” also began to realize he was nearsighted. He gravitated to football because the other players were merely nearby blurs, while in baseball he couldn’t see the ball coming straight at him.
On one Sunday drive in the country he tried on his mother’s glasses and was astonished to find he could read signs and make out features in the landscape. She had him fitted with a pair of large black-rimmed glasses. He loved seeing things—and going to the movies. He especially liked Westerns and sports films and also began checking out two books a week from the town library.
One evening, when he was 11, Ronald found his father passed out on the front porch. He managed to pull him into the house and to bed. Jack’s drinking bouts became longer. He became cynical—which contrasted with the joking, storytelling side of his nature. Nelle, though, never wavered from her belief that alcoholism was a disease and its victims should not be condemned for something over which they had no control.
In 1922, after reading That Printer of Udell’s, a novel of redemption and success through determination, Ronald asked his mother to have him baptized in the Christian Church. Within two years, he was teaching a Sunday School class. His delivery and voice were much complimented by parishioners.
Summers and High School
When Dutch Reagan was 14, puberty set in. He went from being scrawny to tall, muscular, and good looking. Just as Nelle was constantly helping people in need of moral support, sports-loving Dutch found a more physical way to help people: saving lives. The YMCA had a swimming program at Lowell Park, on the swift Rock River. The Park Commission threatened to close the program after some drownings. Reagan, an excellent swimmer, appealed to the park concessionaires to hire him as a lifeguard. He worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for seven summers—loving it. While he sat on his lifeguard stand, girls would flock around to talk with him. At the park, he carved a notch in an old log every time he saved a life—77 in all. His role as a lifeguard—always ready to save a drowning person—was something of a foretaste of his role in public life, standing ready to save a nation from drowning in domestic and foreign troubles.
During this time he discovered Margaret Cleaver. They became steadies through college. Margaret was the daughter of the Reverend Ben Cleaver, new pastor of the Christian Church and a man who would have a major effect on the young Reagan.
Dutch admired Jack’s opposition to racial and religious intolerance and his love of good stories. Nevertheless, Jack’s drinking was an ever-present part of their lives and Dutch learned to cultivate both a private world for himself (i.e., coping with Jack’s drinking) and a public one in which he was unfailingly polite and charming with people.
By the time he was a senior in high school, he found a perfect outlet for his public self: the school’s drama club. Teacher B. J. Fraser, the club’s adviser, found Dutch to be an apt pupil, fitting any role he was given. That year he had a taste of public speaking when he was chosen to be master of ceremonies at a Christian Endeavor conference in Moline.
Nelle wanted her boys to go to college. Dutch didn’t have quite enough summer money saved to cover college expenses for a year. Still, he accompanied Margaret to Eureka College where she enrolled. He decided he would somehow talk the school into granting him a scholarship to cover his expenses. “I fell head over heels in love with Eureka,” Reagan wrote later. His earnestness and determination persuaded President Bert Wilson and Athletic Director Ralph McKinzie to give him an athletic scholarship and a dishwashing job at a women’s dormitory.
McKinzie was only a few years older than his football and basketball players. He’d been a star player in both sports. Despite Reagan’s determination to make the football varsity his first year, McKinzie kept him on the fifth string, largely because of his poor eyesight. Where Reagan shone was in competitive swimming.
“Dutch” quickly absorbed the sense of solidarity that prevailed at Eureka, He later wrote, “We had a special spirit at Eureka that bound us all together, much as a poverty-stricken family is bound.”
By then, however, times were not good in that part of Illinois. Further, cultural changes were sweeping the country. It was the era of “flaming youth.” Eureka students did not go off the deep end, but they did like to dance and sought relaxation of the school’s strict code of behavior. The president did just the reverse: he tightened the restrictions. This led to serious trouble.
In November 1928, President Wilson failed to get trustee support to cut sports to save money. He offered his resignation. He also delivered a blistering condemnation of the morals of the campus and community. The trustees declined an alumni group’s urging to accept the resignation. Right after the final football game, the students were to go home for Thanksgiving. Few did. Leslie Pierce, a football star, led a campaign to oust the president despite the board’s vote. At 11:45 that night, Pierce and others rang the chapel bells for 15 minutes. Students and faculty came running, thinking there was a fire.
Pierce decided a freshman should set forth the students’ demands because that class would have four years of staying power. Members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon house chose “Dutch.” He later wrote, “I discovered that night that an audience had a ‘feel’ to it and, in the parlance of the theater, the audience and I were together.” When he proposed an all-student strike on their return from the holiday, it was approved by acclamation. Student leaders wrote a statement that all students would stay on strike until the president resigned. They pushed it under his door. By December 7, he was gone.
The Drama Club
Meanwhile, Margaret Cleaver and Dutch had joined the student drama club. His stage demeanor earned him positive reviews. This was before microphones, but his clear voice carried. The drama coach, Mary Ellen Johnson, saw the talent in Reagan and steadily encouraged him. One pastime Dutch cultivated at Eureka was a locker room re-creation of an entire quarter of a football game, play by play, using a broomstick as a “microphone.” He was to learn that his voice was a natural talent: clear and mellow with a sense of hope in it.
He threw himself into student activities, winning a “letter” in track, becoming the school’s swimming coach, basketball team cheerleader, president of the Boosters’ Club, editor of the yearbook, and member of the football team.
Eureka’s graduating class of 1932 had shrunk to 45 because of Depression dropouts. Dutch’s greatest worry was, Could he get a job? At the graduation he spoke as president of the Student Senate.
The Job Hunt
Back at Dixon as a lifeguard, Reagan was asked by a prosperous Dixon summer resident, Sid Altschuler, what he wanted to do for a career. “Be a radio sports announcer,” he found himself saying. Altschuler didn’t realize it, but by asking the question, he had given Reagan the self-confidence to put into words what had been forming in his mind.
In early September, he hitchhiked to Chicago, the Midwest’s radio center. No one at the major stations would interview him, but a sympathetic receptionist advised him to try small town stations. He returned home, borrowed Jack’s car, and set out for Davenport, Iowa, 75 miles away. There he called on Peter MacArthur, WOC’s station manager. MacArthur told him he’d auditioned 94 job applicants and hired one. Thinking he was being dismissed, Reagan turned to leave. MacArthur, a Scot whose arthritis caused him to walk with two canes, followed Reagan to the elevator and said, “D’ye think ye could tell me about a game and make me see it?”
Could he ever? MacArthur led him to a broadcast studio, and Reagan re-created the final 20 minutes of a recent Eureka game. “Ye did great, ye big S.O.B,” Macarthur said. Reagan was hired for $5 to report a game that coming Saturday. He did so well he was hired to do a game a week for the rest of the season.
At the end of the football season, Dutch Reagan worried that his radio career had ended; however, MacArthur called to offer him a full-time announcer’s job at $100 a month—a princely sum at the time.
By now Ronald Reagan’s character was fully formed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with President Reagan for a number of years, beginning in 1971. He is the author of five books about the late president, including Recollections of Reagan.