Bookmark: ‘The story of his story’

It was the lifeguard in Ronald Reagan that endured to the very end, even as Alzheimer’s began to defeat him, a moving tale by his son Ron reveals.

Ronald Reagan 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Ronald Reagan 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
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.
From the 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 narrative.
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 Life, 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 considerable mystery.”
Reagan recounts his dad’s noisy, feetfirst arrival in a small second-floor apartment above a bakery in Tampico, Illinois.
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 wonderful.”
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 inside.
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 drowning.
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 him.
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.
In fact, 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 me, either.”
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 Communicator.
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.