Remembering Ronald Reagan, Illinois’ Native Son

Illinois native Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in the tiny village of Tampico in Whiteside County in 1911. Mr. Reagan died at the age of 93 in 2004. Reagan is most famous for being elected the 40th President of the United States and served eight years in office from 1981-1989.

Reagan, a Republican, served as Governor of California from 1967-75. Prior to his political career, Reagan was a professional actor, television series host, and spokesman for General Electric. 

Reagan’s family included parents Jack and Nelle and older brother Neil. They lived in poverty and moved several times during Reagan’s childhood before settling in Dixon, located a half-hour from Tampico, in 1920. Reagan went to high school in Dixon and then attended Eureka College, graduating in 1932 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology. He participated in football, track, and swimming at EC and was also active in drama society. Reagan was elected class president during his senior year. 

Reagan’s first job out of college was as a sports broadcaster in Iowa. After a screen test landed him a Hollywood contract, Reagan moved to California in 1937 and began his acting career. Over the next two decades, he appeared in 53 films. 

In 1937, Reagan enlisted in the United States Army Reserve, advancing to the rank of Captain and serving from 1937-1945. Reagan served in the reserves from 1937-42 before he was ordered for active duty while working on the film ‘Kings Row.’ Reagan served as an AAF public relations officer during WWII and continued to make theatrical films until his discharge in December 1945. He produced over 400 training films during his military career. 

Reagan married actress Jane Wyman in 1940, and the couple had two children, Maureen and Michael, an adopted son. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948. Reagan served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947-52, and it was during this time he met his second wife, actress Nancy Davis. Reagan was contacted by Davis after she saw her name on a list of Communist sympathizers. Reagan and Nancy Davis were married in 1952 and had two children, Ron and Patti. 

Reagan’s political leanings during his younger years were Democratic, and he called President Franklin D. Roosevelt ‘a true hero.’ During his time with the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan dealt with the issue of Communism in the film industry. These experiences, along with wife Nancy’s conservative views, influenced Reagan’s move to the right. He supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, and Reagan worked for Republican Richard Nixon during his 1960 presidential campaign.

Reagan’s political career continued to ramp up, and in 1964 he served as co-chairman of the California Republicans for Barry Goldwater campaign. His 30-minute nationally televised address for Goldwater drew rave reviews and moved him onto the national political stage. Reagan ran for Governor of California in 1966 and defeated Democratic incumbent Edmund “Pat” Brown. Reagan served two four-year terms as California Governor before setting his sights on the White House. 

Republican Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency following President Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal in 1974, and Reagan provided a strong challenge to Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries. Ford narrowly prevailed to face Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, losing the final electoral vote count 297-240. 

Reagan ascended into presidential contention after winning the Republican primary elections in 1980, earning him a face-off with Carter. With the country dealing with record inflation, rising unemployment figures, and the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide. He won 44 states and received 489 electoral votes, to six states and 49 votes for Carter. 

U.S. hostages were released from Iran just minutes after Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981, but his presidency and life nearly ended two months later after an assassination attempt. Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, as he was leaving the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Assassin John Hinckley, Jr. fired six bullets before being detained. Two shots hit Reagan under his left arm, narrowly missing his heart. Three others were wounded, and Press Secretary James Brady suffered the most serious injuries as he was shot in the head. Reagan suffered a broken rib, punctured lung, and internal bleeding, spending 13 days in the hospital before being released. Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently disabled until he died in 2014. 

Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush were re-elected in resounding fashion in 1984, recording the largest margin of victory in the Electoral College in U.S. history. Reagan received 525 of 538 electoral votes and carried 49 states, defeating Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale and VP Geraldine Ferraro. 

The Reagan Presidency included a resurgence in the U.S. economy, spurred by tax cuts known as ‘Reaganomics.’ Other notable events of Reagan’s presidency included the appointment of the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court; military build-up and development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, suicide bombers killing 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut, Lebanon; revival of talks with the Soviet Union that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, unification of Germany, collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War; and the Iran-Contra Arms Affair. 

Reagan left office at age 77, and he and Nancy returned to California. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in November 1994. He died on June 4, 2004, at his Los Angeles home at age 93. Nancy Reagan lived to age 94 before dying of heart failure in 2016. 

The Reagans shared a love affair for 52 years, their devotion to each other unwavering for over a half-century. Nancy Reagan was an active First Lady in the White House, with her chief project targeting drug and alcohol abuse among younger people. She traveled over 250,000 miles to deliver her message to fight substance abuse, and she was also a mainstay on television with public service announcements and appearances on talk shows. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” movement enhanced the government’s War on Drugs. Just Say No – Campaign.

Ronald Reagan’s memory and legacy live on in Illinois. The historic Ronald Reagan Trail is located in northwest Illinois and winds through 13 towns that Reagan lived in, visited, went to college, and shaped his childhood and young adult years. The Illinois General Assembly officially designated the trail on May 21, 1999. Cities along the 92-mile trail include Chillicothe, Dixon, Eureka, Fulton, Galesburg, Henry, Monmouth, Ohio, Peoria Heights, Princeton, Tampico, Walnut, and Washington. 

The Ronald Reagan Museum and Peace Garden is located at Eureka College and housed inside the Donald B. Cerf Center. The museum includes over 10,000 items from Reagan’s days as a student at EC, along with his movie and political careers. The Peace Garden includes a bust of President Reagan and a section of the Berlin Wall. Reagan visited the campus 14 times, including three as President. He gave the commencement speech in 1982.

Reagan is also honored in his birthplace of Tampico and adopted hometown of Dixon. Reagan, whose nickname was ‘Dutch,’ was born in an apartment above a bakery on Main Street. The small apartment has been restored and decorated and restored to its original style. A gift store, museum of Reagan memorabilia, and ‘Dutch Diner’ restaurant are located nearby.  Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon has been restored to its 1920 condition and is available for tours. There are several other sites and Reagan-themed festivals to check out in Dixon as well.