PHILLIPS (voice-over): Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was born in an apartment above a bank in this small town. Tampico, Illinois, known for beautiful farm country and great pie. Life here hasn’t changed much.
Ronald was the second son born to Nell and Jack Reagan, the first, Neil, was born two years earlier. Mary Ellen Goldson’s father delivered Ronald in this room.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ronald got the name Dutch because when he was born, his father said, he looks just like a Dutchman. He was a big baby, chubby.
PHILLIPS: They would become childhood playmates.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But it was fun with the ghost stories and the hide & go seek, cops & robbers. That was a lot of fun.
PHILLIPS: Ronald Reagan’s young life was centered on his mother, Nell. He adored her, and she was his moral guide. Dorothy Carlson remembers that bond.
DOROTHY CARLSON, REAGAN’S CHILDHOOD FRIEND: He had good Christian values, had a good Christian upbringing. His mother was a wonderful woman, and he attended Sunday school and church regularly. And living in a small town where everyone is friendly and knows everybody, I think it makes a difference in city living. And you have more of a care and concern for people, and I don’t think he ever forgot it.
KAGAN: Nell also passed to Dutch her love of the dramatic. Reagan would recall [that] he felt [that] performing was his mother’s first love. Nell taught her son [that] God had a plan for him. She taught him how to dream, and to expect those dreams to come true.
Ronald Reagan stands on the diving board in the Little 19 (Illinois private colleges) swim meet held at St. Viator in this March 22, 1930 file photo.
LOU CANNON, REAGAN BIOGRAPHER: I think that Reagan’s mother was the key to his development, to his maturation, to his successes as an adult human being.
PHILLIPS: Reagan’s paternal ancestors hailed from Tiperary, Ireland. His father, Jack, a shoe salesman, was a staunch Irish- Catholic Democrat, who hated bigotry and racism, supported working people and taught his sons the same. He was also an alcoholic.
CANNON: If you’re the child of an alcoholic, you see things you don’t want to remember, and you certainly don’t want to tell anybody. Its main impact on Reagan was to create a kind of inward part of him that was a very, very important part of his character.
PHILLIPS: But it was Nell Reagan who would teach her son tolerance.
CANNON: The biggest thing that you did was that she taught Reagan and his brother to come to terms with the alcoholism of his father, which was very, very hard on Reagan.
PHILLIPS: Also hard on young Dutch was his nomadic boyhood. The family moved often through several small towns in Illinois before settling in Dixon, a prodominantly working class farm town of 8,000 people.
CANNON: In these first four, five, six years, they moved all the time, and so Reagan didn’t have — form these friendships that you form with other children if you grow up in the same place.
PHILLIPS: Reagan was just nine years old when the family moved to Dixon. He thought Dixon was heaven, and liked to describe his childhood as a rare Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer existence, simple life, simple times.
In his seven years as a lifeguard, Ronald Reagan saved 77 lives and a set of false teeth. (1931 photo)
Dutch was a short, skinny shy kid who wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses and was only an average student. But as he reached his teens, a summer job would become a defining experience in his life, forever changing his self-image.
(on camera): Ronald Reagan was 15 years old when he became a lifeguard here at Lowell Park on the Rock River. And as the story goes, when his shift was up and swimmers didn’t want to get out, he would toss pebbles from here and yell “River Rat!!!” But that’s not the only way to get swimmers out of the water. In seven summers as a lifeguard, he would go on to save 77 lives [and notched a mark on a wooden log for every life he saved, he said in an interview].
(voice-over): Helen Lotten remembers something else Reagan saved.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One time while he was a lifeguard, a man came up to him that had been swimming and he said, ‘Will you please dive in? I’ve lost my false teeth.’ He said, ‘I dove in and I can’t find them.’ So Dutch dove in several times, and he got them, he got them and he gave them to him, and the man was so pleased he gave him $10. And he [Reagan] said, ‘That was the first time I was ever paid for doing anything.’
PHILLIPS: Ronald Reagan loved being a lifeguard. He would recall his days on Rock River with great pride.
In the last years of his life, Ronald Reagan, while suffering from the debilitating mental effects of Alzheimer’s, had the same “slow, unstoppable energy” of his youth. He remained active in these post-presidency years, taking walks through parks near his California home and on beaches, playing golf regularly, riding horses, and visiting his office in nearby Century City. (1) At his home, he would tirelessly rake leaves from the pool for hours, not knowing that the leaves were secretly being replenished by the Secret Service men. (2)
(1) Wikipedia. Ronald Reagan.
(2) Morris, Edmund. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House, Inc., 1999.