Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
On Feb. 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was riding high as he celebrated his 73rd birthday in Dixon, Illinois, the county seat of Lee County and the town where he lived as a youth for a dozen years starting in 1920.
More than half a century earlier, Reagan had ventured forth from his hometown to earn a bachelor’s degree at Eureka College, class of 1932 – not an easy feat during the Great Depression.
Then he became a radio sports announcer in Iowa, an actor in about 50 Hollywood movies, president of the Screen Actors Guild, a television personality, and spokesman for General Electric.
Turning to politics in the 1960s, he served as governor of California for two terms and, on his third try, was elected 40th president of the United States.
His hometown birthday bash in 1984 found Reagan – tall, handsome and known for his sense of humor – in good spirits as he addressed a crowd that packed Dixon High School’s Lancaster Gymnasium.
His speech came after he and his wife, Nancy, rode in a parade and lunched at his boyhood home, which local residents had rushed to renovate in time for the big day.
“Birthdays are special moments, and you’ve given me one today,” Reagan said. “But I must tell you, even though this is the 34th anniversary of my 39th birthday (the crowd laughs), those numbers don’t faze me at all. I believe Moses was 80 when God first commissioned him for public service.”
After more audience chuckles, Reagan continued: “And I also remember something that Thomas Jefferson once said. He said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that – (laughter) – I’ve stopped worrying. There are those who say I’ve stopped working.” (More laughter)
Reagan, known as The Great Communicator for his TV addresses to the nation from the Oval Office, could afford to poke fun at himself.
He was feeling healthy and fit, nearly three years after being shot by John Hinckley in March 1981, barely two months after his inauguration.
The economy was growing again after a tough 1982 recession.
And his re-election chances looked good. Reagan, a Republican, would go on to receive 59 percent of the vote that fall and carry 49 states in a defeat of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. The former vice president had served under the man Reagan more narrowly defeated in 1980, President Jimmy Carter.
It was quite an accomplishment for the only president born in Illinois.
The son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in a second-floor Main Street apartment in the Whiteside County village of Tampico.
A conservative icon to many, a proponent of leaner government and a stronger national defense, Reagan served from 1981 to 1989 amid trying times.
Among them: Reagan’s firing in 1981 of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers; the 1983 explosion at a U.S. barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines and sailors; the 1986 space shuttle Columbia disaster; and the Iran-Contra scandal where arms were traded for hostages.
But in Reagan’s Illinois, folks remember the positives: a new spirit of optimism; economic expansion; the invasion of Grenada to oust leftist revolutionaries; and nuclear arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union.
At the Ronald Reagan Birthplace, Tampico residents still serve cake every year on Reagan’s birthday. A few years ago, they erected a statue of Reagan as a boy playing on a cannon in the town park.
In Dixon, they’re fixing up Reagan’s boyhood home again. Numerous rehab projects were undertaken in 2017 to repair deteriorated parts of the house, built in 1891.
Down the street in a restored three-story brick school building, the Northwest Territory Historic Center preserves Reagan’s grade-school classroom and has a display of his movie posters.
Two statues commemorate Reagan: one portrays him wearing a suit outside the boyhood home, and the other, in the city’s downtown riverfront park, shows him, clad in riding clothes, astride a stallion – just as he appeared in a local parade in 1950.
An effort to erect a statue of young Reagan as a lifeguard at Dixon’s Lowell Park has yet to bear fruit. Over seven summers, he rescued 77 struggling swimmers from the Rock River.
Reagan’s tough stance against communism is recalled in Dixon’s downtown, where a replica of the Berlin Wall stands. Less than a year after he left office, the Cold War-era wall fell.
Reagan’s name would be preserved on everything from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, to an airport, government buildings and roads, to Dixon’s own Reagan Middle School.
His post-presidency, which included publishing his memoir, “An American Life,” in 1990 and dedicating his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, in 1991, was dominated by his bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He bore the illness for nearly 10 years until his death in California on June 5, 2004. He was 93.
All that still lay ahead as Reagan stood at the Dixon High School podium on Feb. 6, 1984, and thanked “everyone who made this terrific day possible.”
The president praised the spirit of small-town America that had the nation “back on her feet and moving forward with confidence.”
And he said: “So, you see, the reason I came home today was not to celebrate my birthday, but to celebrate Dixon and America. Honor, integrity and kindness do exist all across our land.”
Honor, integrity and kindness are qualities that inspired a president. He learned to appreciate them in small-town Illinois – Reagan’s Illinois.
Jim Dunn can be reached at email@example.com.
Comments on Reagan’s life, legacy
- Then-Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, 2011: “The people of Illinois helped develop Reagan’s character; he was raised and educated in Illinois. It helped propel him all the way to the White House.”
- Then-Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, R-Riverside, 2004: “His vision and leadership helped bring down communism and sowed the seeds of freedom throughout the world. We will never forget President Reagan, and his legacy will live on for generations.”
- Former President George W. Bush, 2004: “He always told us for America, the best is yet to come. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that this is true for him, too. His work is done. And now a shining city awaits him.”
- Former President Bill Clinton, 2004: “I will always remember President Ronald Reagan for the way he personified the indomitable optimism of the American people, and for keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom.”
- Michael Reagan, son of President Reagan, 1997: “Thanks for getting him off to a great start. There should be more places like Tampico and Dixon to grow the youth of America.”
- Maureen Reagan, daughter of President Reagan, 1998: “My father’s heart has always been in Dixon, and it always will be. Many times growing up, I heard stories about what it was like growing up in the greatest town in America.”
- “There you go again.” – Responding to criticism during debate with President Carter, October 1980
- “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” – Inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1981
- “I’ve always stated that the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth is a government program.” – April 1986
- “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” -- June 1987, Reagan's speech in West Berlin
- “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” – November 1994, after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis
Reagan sites in Northwestern Illinois
- Ronald Reagan Birthplace and Museum, 111-113 S. Main St., Tampico, 815-438-2130, tampicohistoricalsociety.com
- Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, 816 S. Hennepin Ave., Dixon, 815-288-5176, reaganhome.org
- Northwest Territory Historic Center, 205 W. Fifth St., Dixon, 815-288-5508, nthc.org
Timeline for the life of President Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004
- Feb. 6, 1911: Born in Tampico, Ill., younger of two sons of Nelle and John Reagan.
- 1932: Graduates from Eureka College, Eureka, Ill.
- 1932-1937: Works as radio announcer at WOC, Davenport, Iowa, and then WHO, Des Moines.
- 1937: Makes film debut with "Love Is on the Air."
- Jan. 26, 1940: Marries Jane Wyman, actress. Children: Maureen, born 1941, Michael, born 1945, and Christine, born four months premature in 1947 and died the next day. Marriage ends in divorce in 1949.
- 1940: Plays "the Gipper" in "Knute Rockne, All-American," one of his best-known roles.
- 1942-45: Serves war effort by making Air Force training films.
- 1947: Becomes president of the Screen Actors Guild.
- March 4, 1952: Marries Nancy Davis, actress. Children: Patti, born 1952, and Ronald, born 1958.
- 1952, 1956, 1960: Though a Democrat, campaigns for Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon. Formally switches to Republican Party in 1962.
- 1954-62: Works as host and performer on General Electric Theater, tours as speaker for GE.
- Oct. 27, 1964: Gives influential speech in favor of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
- Nov. 8, 1966: Elected California governor over incumbent Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.
- 1968: Makes last-minute bid for Republican presidential nomination.
- Nov. 3, 1970: Elected to second term as governor.
- 1976: Challenges President Ford unsuccessfully in the Republican primaries.
- Nov. 4, 1980: Elected president over incumbent Jimmy Carter, garnering 51.6 percent of the popular vote to 41.7 percent for Carter and 6.7 percent for independent John Anderson.
- Jan. 20, 1981: Sworn in as 40th president of the United States. Iranian hostages released.
- March 30, 1981: Wounded by one of six shots fired as he left a Washington hotel after giving a speech.
- June 5, 1981: The AIDS crisis begins when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports five gay men in Los Angeles are suffering from a rare pneumonia.
- July 7, 1981: Announces he is nominating Arizona judge Sandra Day O'Connor to become the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
- August 1981: Fires more than 11,000 air traffic controllers after they go out on strike against the Federal Aviation Administration.
- Oct. 23, 1983: 241 U.S. Marines and sailors are killed in a suicide truck-bombing in Lebanon.
- Oct. 25, 1983: U.S. troops invade island of Grenada after a leftist coup there.
- Nov. 6, 1984: Re-elected, besting former Vice President Walter Mondale with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. He took 49 out of 50 states for an Electoral College vote of 525-13, the most lopsided since Franklin Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon in 1936.
- May 5, 1985: Visits German military cemetery at Bitburg as a gesture of reconciliation, inciting worldwide protests because 49 of Adolf Hitler's dreaded Waffen SS troops are buried there.
- July 13, 1985: Undergoes successful surgery for colon cancer.
- Nov. 19-21, 1985: Summit in Geneva with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan calls it a "fresh start" in U.S.-Soviet relations.
- April 15, 1986: United States launches an air raid against Libya in response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin 10 days earlier. Libya says 37 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
- Oct. 11-12, 1986: Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, on arms reduction, U.S. strategic defense initiative or "Star Wars."
- November 1986: The Iran-Contra affair becomes public. White House admits selling arms to Iran but denies it sold arms for hostages. Later in the month, Reagan announces aide Oliver North has been fired and national security adviser John Poindexter has resigned. It is disclosed that up to $30 million in arms-sale profits were diverted to Nicaraguan rebels, known as the Contras.
- March 4, 1987: Reagan acknowledges in a televised speech that his Iranian initiative deteriorated into an arms-for-hostages deal, saying, "It was a mistake."
- Oct. 23, 1987: Senate rejects Reagan's nomination of Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court.
- Dec. 8-10, 1987: Summit in Washington. Reagan, Gorbachev sign treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces, but disagreement over Star Wars blocks progress on a strategic arms reduction treaty.
- May 29-June 2, 1988: Summit in Moscow. Reagan, Gorbachev exchange ratified texts of the INF treaty, discuss strategic and conventional arms and stroll in Red Square.
- Nov. 8, 1988: Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, defeats Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the presidency.
- Dec. 7, 1988: Summit in New York City. Gorbachev's plan to reduce Soviet armed forces is discussed. President-elect Bush takes part.
- January 1989: Returns to California after second term ends.
- November 1990: Publishes his memoir, "An American Life."
- Nov. 4, 1991: Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., dedicated; with President Bush and former Presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon in attendance.
- Nov. 5, 1994: Discloses he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
- March 4, 2001: Christening of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.
- Aug. 8, 2001: Daughter Maureen dies of cancer.
- Oct. 11, 2001: Becomes the longest-lived president ever, having lived 33,120 days. The nation's second chief executive, John Adams, lived 33,119 days, from 1735 to 1826.
- July 12, 2003: U.S. Navy commissions its newest aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, the first carrier to be named for a living president.
- June 5, 2004: Reagan dies at age 93
The Associated Press (from 2004)