If you’re looking for biographical material on the 40th president of the United
States on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday on February 6,
try Ronald Reagan: 100 Years: Official Centennial Edition just published by the
Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
My Father at 100, by his son and
namesake, is not a biography and does not pretend to be one.
outset, Reagan writes that his goal was to shed light on “the enduring mystery”
of his father’s inner character through “a layer cake of stories: A running
account of my search through my father’s early life...; a memoir of our lives
together as father and son; and, finally, an exploration of his personal,
internal narrative – the story of his story.”
His father’s Hollywood
career and first marriage are of only incidental interest, understandably, as he
brings us along on his tour of the Reagan Library and preserved Illinois
homestead. His memories, conjectures and discoveries provide the meat of the
An intensely private individual, the elder Reagan did not
share his family lore or photos with his kids. They did not even know of his
aunts and uncles, much less the family’s humble beginnings in Ireland. Despite
having been “scrutinized, analyzed, chronicled, and pondered” and having penned
two autobiographies, Where’s the Rest of Me?
(1965) and the 1990 An American
, reprinted in January, he left much untold.
“You may think you know
Ronald Reagan, or at least the 90 percent or so that was so long and frequently
on public display,” posits the younger Reagan, a gifted writer. “However, even
to those of us who were closest to him, that hidden 10 percent remains a
Reagan recounts his dad’s noisy, feetfirst arrival
in a small second-floor apartment above a bakery in Tampico,
The future president’s father, Jack, is said to have exclaimed,
“For such a little bit of a fat Dutchman, he makes a hell of a lot of noise,
doesn’t he?” to which the new mother reportedly replied, “He’s perfectly
Both these remarks were to figure prominently in the making
of president Reagan. He was known by almost everyone as “Dutch” throughout his
long life, and he endeavored to craft himself into the “perfectly wonderful”
person his mother always thought him to be.
Dutch and his hard-drinking
dad seemed to have had a loving if tense relationship. In his own writings,
Reagan revealed a seminal moment that occurred when he had just turned 11 and
returned home on a cold, blustery night from swimming at the YMCA to find his
inebriated father passed out on the front stoop. But his rendering of the
ensuing events isn’t plausible, his son gently argues. Weighing barely 90
pounds, Dutch could scarcely have dragged his unconscious father inside and
gotten him settled in bed without his mother any the wiser, as he claimed in his
recounting of the incident. It is more likely that he roused Jack and coaxed him
However it went down, the episode foreshadowed what would soon
become Dutch Reagan’s forte: rescuing people. At just 15, with Jack’s help, the
strong swimmer secured a job as summer lifeguard at the Rock River that lasted
into his college years due to his diligence in saving 77 people from
It was just the right fit for Dutch, who at once preferred
solitude, attracting attention through his good deeds and good looks and
maintaining tranquility and order. More than anything else, it was the lifeguard
in him that endured to the very end, even as Alzheimer’s began to defeat
This essential piece of his personality helps explain the way he
handled a bigoted desk clerk in his hometown who refused to give lodging to two
of Reagan’s black college football teammates: Rather than argue, he simply took
the pair home with him for the night. Probably unusual for the time and place,
the Reagan family seemed to be utterly without prejudice.
relates the author, his grandfather Jack was once told by a hotel clerk: “You’ll
like it here, Mr. Reagan; we don’t permit a Jew in the place.” To which the
future president’s father responded, on his way out the door: “I’m a Catholic.
If it’s come to the point where you won’t take Jews, then someday you won’t take
He spent the cold night in his car, apparently contracting
pneumonia in the process.
It is hard to tell how completely Ron Reagan’s
quest in search of his father was successful from a personal point of view. But
for the reader, a much clearer and dearer picture emerges of the Great
Whether or not you agreed with his politics – and his son
often did not – you come away feeling that the 40th president was a man
perfectly suited to lifeguarding the free world.