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"I learned a lot about how to be a wife and about many other things, from my mother, Edith Luckett Davis. She had a profound influence on the woman I turned out to be, as did her second husband, Dr. Loyal Davis, whom I have always considered my true father." --Nancy Reagan, My Turn
July 6, 1921
Nancy is Born in New York City
Born to a determined mother who acted on Broadway, Nancy’s fate was in her genes.Read More
Nancy's Early Years
During her young years, Nancy was raised by her Aunt and their family while her mother traveled with the theater.Read More
May 21, 1929
Nancy moves to Chicago
Nancy becomes a smart, fun-loving popular student.Read More
"You know, if Nancy Davis hadn't come along when she did, I would have lost my soul." -Ronald Reagan, My Turn.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: My life didn't really begin until I met Ronnie." -Nancy Reagan, My Turn
Nancy at Smith College
Nancy’s love of acting turns into a career.Read More
Nancy in New York
While breaking into acting, Nancy Davis spends time with friends like Katherine Hepburn, Lillian Gish and Clark Gable.Read More
Nancy Moves to Hollywood
Nancy signs a seven year contract with MGM.Read More
Ronald Reagan’s Political Career Begins
Nancy Reagan actively campaigns on Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial trail.Read More
"When I married Ronnie, I thought I married an actor. But looking back now, I really should have known that acting wast fulfilling enough for him. But I honestly never expected that Ronald Reagan would go into politics." -Nancy Reagan, My Turn
January 3, 1967
The Reagans Move to Sacramento
Ronald Reagan becomes Governor of California and Nancy works to ensure a safe living environment for her family.Read More
Nancy’s sponsorship of Foster Grandparents helps bring national awareness to the program.Read More
Nancy Reagan as First Lady of California
As First Lady, a newspaper calls her, “informed, interested and beautifully turned out day after day.”Read More
Welcoming Home Vietnam War POWs
Nancy focuses on giving Vietnam War Veterans the hero’s welcome they deserve.Read More
Back Home in Southern California
Nancy campaigns on behalf of her husband to become President of the United States.Read More
"Being first lady had taught me so much. Over those eight years in Washington, amid the exaggerated ups and downs of life at the White House, I found out what was really important to me. I learned how to serve... And for this, and for so many other things, I will always be grateful" -Nancy Reagan, My Turn
1981 – 1988
Celebrations and Memorials
President and Mrs. Reagan work to bring the nation together.Read More
January 20, 1981
Settling Into the White House
First Lady Nancy Reagan focuses on restoring the White House.Read More
July 2, 1981
Continuing her good work during the Gubernatorial Years, Nancy Reagan continues to promote and grow the Foster Grandparents Program.Read More
July 29, 1981
The Royal Wedding
As the United States representative, Mrs. Reagan attends the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.Read More
Just Say No
Responding to a young girl’s question about what to do when offered drugs, Mrs. Reagan answers, ‘Well, you just say no.’Read More
Representing America Abroad
As part of her official duties, Mrs. Reagan represents America in over 20 trips all over the world.Read More
December 8, 1987
White House State Dinner in Honor of Mikhail Gorbachev
“Nancy, much credit belongs to you, and I want to express to you your husband’s pride and your country’s thanks.”Read More
January 25, 1988
Awards and Recognitions
“Nancy, much credit belongs to you, and I want to express to you your husband’s pride and your country’s thanks.”Read More
"I try to remember Ronnie telling me so many times that God has a plan for us which we Don't understand now but one day will. It's hard but even now there are moments that Ronnie has given me that I wouldn't trade for anything. Alzheimer's so a truly long, long goodbye." -Nancy Reagan, I Love You Ronnie
November 4, 1991
Opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
5 Presidents and 6 First Ladies gather at the opening of the Reagan Library.Read More
November 5, 1994
President Reagan is Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease
Mrs. Reagan prepares herself for “truly a long, long goodbye.”Read More
August 12, 1996
Republican National Convention
“Ronnie’s optimism, like America’s, still shines very brightly.”Read More
March 4, 2001
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)
“Man the ship and bring her to life.”Read More
May 16, 2002
Post-Presidential Awards and Recognitions
Post-Presidential Awards and Recognitions: Congressional Gold Medal of Honor and Presidential Medal of FreedomRead More
July 6, 1921
Nancy Davis Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921 in Queens, New York to Edith Luckett Robbins and Kenneth Seymour Robbins. She was named after her grandmothers, but was nicknamed “Nancy” by her mother at an early age.
According to family legend, Nancy was actually due on the fourth of July, but as her mother was a devoted baseball fan and determined to see a doubleheader that day, she somehow managed to delay the birth. When her mother finally did arrive at the hospital, she was told there were no rooms available and she would have to go somewhere else. Edith Robbins was a very determined woman, however, and refused to take “no” for an answer. She simply lay down in the middle of the reception room floor and announced that she would have her baby right there. The hospital found her a room. It was a particularly hot afternoon, and Edith overheard the doctor say that he wanted to hurry up and deliver the baby so he could get out on the golf course. Forceps were needed to help with the difficult delivery, and as a result, Nancy’s right eye wouldn’t open. When the doctor told Edith that Nancy might be blind in that eye, she angrily informed him that she’d heard he was in a rush to get out and play golf, and threatened him with bodily harm if her daughter’s eye didn’t open. Fortunately for the doctor, Nancy’s eye opened two weeks later.
Edith was born in Petersburg, Virginia, the youngest of nine children, to Charles and Sarah Luckett. Her parents were married in Petersburg, but moved to Washington, D.C. early in their marriage. Edith said that her mother returned to Petersburg for the birth of each of her children, however, insisting that she didn’t want them to be born “damn Yankees.” With such a large family to provide for, the Lucketts were not well off. In fact, not many of the Luckett children stayed in school for long, and had to work to help support the family. One of the older boys, Joseph, managed a local theater in Washington, where the young Edith made her first appearance on stage. She fell in love with acting, and eventually quit school by age sixteen to pursue her dream. She performed with various stock theater companies that traveled up and down the East Coast. Edith worked with many well known actors of the period, including George M. Cohan, Walter Huston, Spencer Tracy and the great silent film star Alla Nazimova. In 1914 she met Kenneth Robbins.
Kenneth Seymour Robbins was born in 1894 to a prosperous family, and his father was an executive in a manufacturing company. Despite Ken’s background and Princeton education, he was not particularly ambitious, and was working as a car salesman when he met Edith. He was taken by Edith’s beauty, her energy and her sense of humor. Ken had been somewhat of a “momma’s boy,” and his mother, known as Nannee, was a formidable presence in his life. In those days, the acting profession was not held in very high esteem, but despite the fact that Nannee was an imposing woman of significant social stature, she found Edith charming and approved of the marriage. Ken and Edith were married on June 27, 1916.
Edith truly intended to give up acting when she was married, but after living in a farmhouse in the Vermont countryside for only a few months, she became restless and talked Ken into moving to New York. It wasn’t long before she was back on the stage, and an unhappy Ken worked as an insurance agent. Edith’s first Broadway play opened in January of 1917, and soon afterwards went on tour. When the United States declared war on Germany that year, Ken enlisted in the Army and Edith continued her acting career. Ken was honorably discharged in January of 1919, and he returned to Edith. When she became pregnant in late 1920, Ken wanted them to move to Vermont to raise their child. When Edith refused to leave New York, Ken left. Edith gave birth to their daughter alone.
Ken returned sometime after Nancy was born, and Edith gave up acting for about a year in an effort to make the marriage work. Eventually, however, their differences couldn’t be overcome, and they separated for good in 1922. Ken moved with his mother to New Jersey, and Edith took sole responsibility for raising Nancy.
After Ken Robbins left his wife and child, Edith refused to accept alimony from her husband, and resumed her acting career to support herself and her daughter. Until Nancy was two years old, Edith took her with her wherever she went. Eventually, Edith decided that traveling from show to show was no life for a child, and in 1923 she reluctantly decided to leave Nancy with her sister and brother-in-law, Virginia and C. Audley Galbraith, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland. Meanwhile, Edith lived in an apartment in New York, and traveled with theater companies throughout the East.
Edith thrived in the world of theater, and earned favorable reviews as a leading lady. She made many friends on the road, including some of the great actors and actresses of the day: George M. Cohan, Walter Huston, Louis Calhern and Alla Nazimova, legendary star of silent movies who became Nancy’s godmother. Among Edith’s closest friends were a struggling young unknown actor named Spencer Tracy and his wife, Louise. The Tracys had a young son, John, so the Tracys and Edith traveled extensively, playing roles in regional theater companies, in order to support their children.
The Galbraiths embraced Nancy into their loving, stable and happy family, but she missed her mother terribly. Whenever Edith had a job in New York, Nancy’s Aunt Virgie would take her to see the show. Nancy loved the theater, and saw her mother’s productions over and over. She would dress up in her mother’s costumes and makeup and act out her mother’s roles. Stagehands doted on her -- one built her a dollhouse for Christmas one year.
Edith would visit Nancy in Bethesda whenever she could, and would bring her exciting world with her. She entertained the Galbraith household with tales of her travels and shows, and taught Nancy and Charlotte the latest dance craze, the Charleston. Nancy was enthralled with her mother’s exhilarating life in the theater, and would later embark upon a similar career herself.
Ken Robbins was mostly absent from his daughter’s life during the five years Nancy spent with the Galbraiths, and he and Edith never reunited. They divorced in February of 1928, and soon afterward Ken married Patricia “Patsie” Cross of Montclair, New Jersey.
In the summer of 1927, Edith sailed to England on the SS New York to join a company of English actors. On board, she met Dr. Loyal Davis, an associate professor of surgery at Northwestern University, and a pioneer in the new field of neurosurgery. Dr. Davis and a colleague were traveling to England to speak at a conference of American and British neurologists. Dr. Davis was married at the time, though his relationship with his wife, Pearl, was troubled and she had declined to accompany him on the trip.
Loyal Davis was born on January 17, 1896, in Galesburg, Illinois. His father, Albert Clark Davis, was an engineer on the Burlington Railroad, and his mother, Laura Hensler Davis, was a housewife. Masonic Lodges were an important part of life in Galesburg, providing the main social life for the working class. Albert Davis was highly involved in his Lodge, and Laura advanced to a high rank in the women’s Masonic organization, Eastern Star. Loyal graduated high school at fifteen, valedictorian of his class. He had expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for the railroad, but a professor friend convinced him to take some college preparatory classes. He did well, and then enrolled in Knox College in Galesburg for two years. He entered Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago at eighteen, and in 1918 earned his M.D. In 1919 he met and married his first wife, Pearl, a nurse at the hospital where Loyal served as an intern. Loyal went on to specialize in surgery, and eventually moved into the new field of neurosurgery. He became the first full-time neurological surgeon in Chicago. Loyal and Pearl had a son, Richard, on June 25, 1925, but the marriage was already in trouble. They were divorced in 1928.
In April through August of 1928, Edith was in Chicago performing in two consecutive George M. Cohan plays, one of which co-starred her friend Spencer Tracy. Dr. Davis came to see her perform, and they were soon seeing each other regularly. At some time during this period, Dr. Davis proposed.
Edith came to visit Nancy in Bethesda to tell her about Dr. Davis. She told her daughter that she wanted to marry him, but that she wouldn’t do so unless Nancy approved. She told Nancy that if she married Dr. Davis, she would give up acting and would bring Nancy to live with them in Chicago. After five long years of separation from her mother, Nancy happily agreed.
May 21, 1929
On May 21, 1929, Edith Robbins and Loyal Davis were married in Chicago. Nancy remembers being very happy for her mother, but just a little bit jealous that she would have to share her with Dr. Davis. Loyal Davis had a son, Richard, from his previous marriage, who was four years younger than Nancy. Richard lived with his mother most of the year, but joined his father, Edith and Nancy in Chicago during the summer months.
Edith and Loyal were very happy together. They were a perfect example of opposites attracting. Edith was outgoing and fun-loving, and Loyal was hardworking and proper. She was a Democrat; he was a Republican. She was gregarious and friendly; he was serious and reserved. Edith helped Loyal gain friends and acceptance, and Loyal gave Edith security.
Loyal was very ambitious professionally, and Edith was equally ambitious socially. She supported Loyal in his work, and began expanding his social circle. Though Loyal was an extremely well-respected surgeon, he was not earning a large salary. In 1931, Edith began working on a radio soap opera called, Betty and Bob. Each episode of the show was fifteen minutes long, and it aired five days a week. Soon Edith was making a considerable contribution to the Davis family’s income. As they became more and more successful they moved several times within Chicago’s best neighborhoods and gained greater social status. Edith became involved in charity work, helping out at the Art Institute and the Passavant Hospital gift shop, and she volunteered with the Red Cross and the Seeing Eye. She began working with the women’s division of the Chicago Community Fund, and would serve as its chairperson for twenty-five years.
Nancy was enrolled into the prestigious Girl’s Latin School of Chicago right away, but there was a waiting list and she didn’t begin attending until three years later. In the meantime, she attended the University School for Girls, also a private institution but not quite as elite as the Girls Latin School. Nancy started at Girls Latin School in 1931 as a fifth grade student. The school was very conservative, and considered one of the best academically and socially. She was a good student, charming and popular with the other girls as well as the boys who attended the nearby Boys Latin School. She and her parents went to the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Scottsdale during Easter vacations, and she spent eight weeks every summer at Camp Kechuwa in Michigamme, Michigan.
Though she had retired from her career as a stage actress, Edith maintained her relationships with her glamorous theater friends, and they visited often. Many had become major stars by then -- Spencer Tracy was one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Walter Huston (“Uncle Walter” to Nancy) was successful in Hollywood and also one of the biggest stars on Broadway. Mary Martin, Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn were regular guests. Edith and Loyal also became good friends with Ed Kelly, who would later serve as Mayor of Chicago for three terms, and his wife, Margaret.
Nancy came to idolize her stepfather. At first he was distant and formal, and Nancy somewhat resented his closeness to her mother. Dr. Davis didn’t push, and allowed Nancy to get to know him at her own pace. He believed in old-fashioned values, and that children should be raised to be ladies and gentlemen. He was strict but fair, and insisted that Nancy obey the rules. He demanded that Nancy always give her best effort, and she strived to live up to his expectations. She enjoyed their serious and intellectual discussions, and he challenged her to reach her full capabilities. He included her on his trips to visit his parents, and they treated her as if she were their own grandchild. She admired him greatly, and eventually would consider him her true father.
During this period, Nancy saw Ken Robbins only sporadically. He visited her in Chicago in the summer of 1929. Nancy went to see Ken and his wife, Patsy, in 1931, and they vacationed at Niagara Falls. Her relationship with her biological father was never very good, and some years later, on a trip to Ken and Patsy’s home, a traumatic incident occurred that ultimately led to Nancy’s decision to ask Loyal Davis to legally adopt her. In her memoirs, Nancy Reagan wrote that Ken Robbins made a disparaging remark about her mother, which angered the young Nancy. She declared that she was going to call her mother and return home. Ken got upset and locked Nancy in the bathroom. It was a traumatizing experience for Nancy, and her relationship with Ken was irreparably damaged. Soon afterward, she approached a neighbor in their Chicago apartment building, Orville Taylor, a retired judge. She asked him how to go about becoming adopted, and with her mother’s permission, Taylor helped her complete the necessary paperwork. She met with Ken and her grandmother to explain what she wanted to do, and he reluctantly signed an agreement to allow Nancy to be adopted by Loyal Davis. On April 19, 1938, at the age of 16, Nancy filed a petition of adoption, and she also requested that her name be changed. Anne Francis Robbins legally became Nancy Davis.
Nancy Davis graduated from Girls Latin School in June of 1939, and entered Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in September. That summer, Loyal Davis’ first wife, Pearl, died of tuberculosis and their son, Richard, came to live with Edith and Loyal in Chicago. Four years younger than Nancy, he entered ninth grade at the Boys Latin School. Nancy and Richard had spent summers together since Edith and Loyal’s marriage, and had always gotten along well. After he moved to Chicago, though Nancy was usually away at Smith, they became very close.
On December 28, 1939, while she was home for Christmas vacation, Nancy made her debut at the Casino Club where her parents were members. In spite of the economic hardships that lingered from the Great Depression, coming-out parties for the daughters of high-society families were very popular, and the social scene in Chicago was filled with lunches, teas, dinners and debutante balls. A prominent Chicago socialite and heiress, Mrs. Patrick A. Valentine, gave a dinner in Nancy’s honor at her Gold Coast mansion.
And at one of the debutante season’s teas, Nancy met a Princeton student, Frank Birney, Jr., who would become her first college beau. They dated for about eighteen months, and were beginning to talk of a future together when tragedy struck. On December 15, 1941, Frank was running across train tracks to catch a train when he was struck and killed. Some have theorized that Frank, despondent over school problems and disturbed by the recent attack on Pearl Harbor, committed suicide. Nancy has always maintained that it was an accident, and in either case it was a terrible blow for her.
With her extensive exposure to the world of theater, Nancy had decided at a very young age to follow in her mother’s footsteps and be an actress. While she was at Girls Latin School, she had been cast in several school plays. In her senior year at Girls Latin, ironically enough, she played the lead in First Lady, by Katharine Dayton and George S. Kaufman. She was cast as the wife of one of two candidates for the presidency, and her character helps her husband win. When she entered Smith, it was with a promise to her father that she would complete at least one year before pursuing her acting career. But she enjoyed college, and stayed on. She spent two summers as an unpaid apprentice in summer stock theaters, and in her third year, she declared drama as her major. Nancy’s first play at Smith was a production called Susan and God, and she and a group of students later formed a theater group which produced a musical comedy about college life called Ladies on the Loose.
When American entered World War II, Loyal Davis was called to Europe to be a consultant in neurological surgery for the U.S. Army. Edith struggled to make ends meet at home, and Nancy completed her education at Smith. Edith worked as a volunteer at the servicemen’s centers, offering soldiers hot meals, a place to stay, and entertainment. In her final semester at Smith, Nancy starred in one last production, Make with the Maximum: A Factory Follies, a musical designed to entertain war workers. Nancy graduated on May 23, 1943, and returned home to Chicago to stay with her mother until her father returned from Europe.
In the fall of 1944, Nancy was offered a part in a play, Ramshackle Inn, a traveling production starring ZaSu Pitts. She joined the company in Detroit, and as the play toured the country, Pitts was a mentor and friend to Nancy. The play ended its tour in New York, and Nancy decided to stay and pursue her dream to be an actress.
Nancy Davis moved to New York City in December of 1944, and it was an exciting time to be a young actress in Manhattan. The war was coming to an end and the mood was upbeat. Broadway was enjoying its best season in twenty years, with a record number of new plays and hits, including Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and their long-running Oklahoma!, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and Jerome Robbins’ On the Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein.
Most parents at that time might have been concerned about their daughter living alone in New York, but the Davis’ knew there were many family friends and theater colleagues to look after Nancy. Walter and Nan Huston, Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn all lived nearby, and Spencer Tracy was appearing in a show on Broadway. Even with all of her contacts, it’s not easy to break into show business, and Nancy spent the first year auditioning and doing modeling jobs to get by as she waited for that first role. In December of 1945 she was cast in a new play, Lute Song, a musical fantasy about China. Nancy played Si-Tchun, a lady in waiting to Mary Martin’s princess character. The show opened on February 6, 1946, and ran for six months. After that, she had a significant role in a traveling production called, The Late Christopher Bean, which starred family friend, Zasu Pitts. The show toured for six months until December of 1947, and was Nancy’s final stage role.
One of Nancy’s most memorable events in New York was a week she spent escorted around town by Clark Gable. It had been five years since the death of his wife, Carole Lombard, and Spencer Tracy had suggested Gable call Nancy while he was visiting New York. He took her to dinner one night, and after that they went out every day and every night for the duration of his stay in New York. They went to baseball games in the afternoons and to the best restaurants for dinner every night. With her background and famous friends, Nancy wasn’t easily star struck, but even so, she was excited to be in the company of a major celebrity like Clark Gable. Wherever they went they were the center of attention, and the gossip magazines speculated that Gable might give up his bachelor life for Nancy. In the end, he returned to California and their would-be romance didn’t have a chance to take off.
Nancy did a little acting in the newest medium, television. She reprised her role in a TV production of Ramshackle Inn, and then a few roles in various television dramas. While she hadn’t established a highly successful career as a stage actress in New York, she was about to begin a whole new acting career in Hollywood.
The television version of Ramshackle Inn aired on January 2, 1949, and it wasn’t long before Nancy’s agent called to tell her that she had been invited to Hollywood for a screen test with Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM). Both Spencer Tracy and Nancy’s mother made some phone calls on Nancy’s behalf, and a screen test was arranged to include one of the best directors in Hollywood, George Cukor, and also one of film’s best cinematographers, George Folsey. Howard Keel, also a newcomer to Hollywood and who would go on to become a star of many Hollywood musicals, played opposite Nancy. On March 2, 1949, Nancy signed a seven year contract with MGM and she was on her way.
Nancy Davis appeared in eleven films between 1949 and 1957. Her first role was in Death in the Doll’s House, with Ann Sothern. It was a “B” movie, but Nancy had a featured role. Soon after she finished that movie, she was cast in The Doctor and the Girl, starring Glen Ford. Nancy worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Ava Gardner, James Whitmore, Gary Cooper, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Janet Leigh and George Murphy. Of the films she made in her early career, Nancy was especially proud her work in Night Into Morning and The Next Voice You Hear.
On October 28, 1949, the Hollywood Reporter, an industry paper, published a list of suspected Communist sympathizers. Nancy Davis was shocked to see her name included. At that time, the political activities of many in Hollywood were being scrutinized, and those who were believed to be Communists were in danger of being blacklisted. Nancy was terrified that she would be placed on that list and her career would be over. She sought the help of Mervyn LeRoy, the director of East Side, West Side, the movie she was working on at the time, in order to clear her name. LeRoy suggested that the president of the Screen Actors Guild might be able to help. His name was Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan assured LeRoy that there were several actresses with the name Nancy Davis, and that she shouldn’t worry. Meanwhile, Louella Parsons, the gossip columnist, wrote that it was another Nancy Davis who was a leftist sympathizer, and the Hollywood Reporter issued a clarification. But Nancy wouldn’t be satisfied until she was sure she was above suspicion, and wanted personal reassurance from the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Mervyn LeRoy arranged for Ronald Reagan to call her, and they made plans to meet over dinner.
When Ronald and Nancy arranged their date, each wanted to give themselves the opportunity to end the evening early if it didn’t go well. Ronald told Nancy he had an “early call” to the set the next morning, and Nancy said she did, too. Of course, neither of them had an early call. They went to one of the trendiest restaurants on the Sunset Strip, and had a wonderful time. After dinner they went to a show at a nearby nightclub, and enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the second show. By the time the evening was over, they both confessed they didn’t have early calls after all.
Ronald and Nancy saw each other constantly, but not exclusively. Ronald had recently been divorced, and was hesitant to enter another relationship right away. On October 9, 1950, Nancy was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, and she was elected to fill a full term the following year. SAG meetings were held every Monday night, and after the meetings they would go out, with or without other members of the board. They dated for two years, and on Christmas Day, 1951, Ronald hinted to Nancy that he intended to ask her to marry him. On February 21, 1952, they officially announced their engagement.
March 4, 1952
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis were married on March 4, 1952, in a private ceremony at the Little Brown Church in the Valley. Bill Holden was Ronald’s best man, and his wife, Ardis, was Nancy’s matron of honor. After the ceremony, they all returned to the Holdens’ home for dinner and wedding cake. Ronald and Nancy honeymooned at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel.
The newlyweds soon settled down into a house on Amalfi Drive in Pacific Palisades, and on October 21, 1952, their daughter, Patricia Ann, was born. Nancy intended to give up her career to be a housewife and mother, but Ronald’s career had slowed down and film offers were few. Ronald had two children from his first marriage that he helped to support, Maureen and Michael, and with a new baby and a mortgage, life was not easy. The couple was in debt, and needed an extra income. Five months after Patti was born, Nancy made another film, Donovan’s Brain, a low-budget science fiction film, that helped pay the bills. Ronald did some guest appearances on various television shows, but he wasn’t getting many roles in movies.
Finally, in late 1954 Ronald received an offer to host a weekly dramatic program on television sponsored by General Electric. Ronald introduced each live episode, and starred in four programs per year. Nancy appeared occasionally with him in his episodes. Ronald also traveled as a “corporate ambassador” for the company, visiting General Electric plants and offices across the country. His travel took him away from home often, sometimes for long stretches. It was difficult for Nancy to be left at home alone, so sometimes she and Patti went to Chicago to visit her parents. But Ronald was very successful with General Electric Theater, and he loved the job.
The following year, General Electric helped the Reagans build a new home on San Onofre Drive in Pacific Palisades. It was to be billed as “The House of the Future,” with top-of-the-line electrical appliances and the latest technologically-advanced gadgets and devices. In return for the company’s assistance in building the house, the Reagans agreed to allow the house to be used for advertisements. The house would be the Reagans home for the next twenty-five years.
Ronald and Nancy lived a relatively quiet life, by Hollywood standards. They had some very famous friends, but preferred to avoid the Hollywood scene. They remained close to Bill and Ardis Holden, and also socialized with Dick Powell and his wife, June Allyson. Robert Taylor, one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, and his wife Ursula lived across the street. Like Nancy, Ursula had given up her own career as an actress to be a wife and mother, and the two women and their children spent a lot of time together. Nancy became Godmother to the Taylors’ daughter, Tessa. Sometimes the Reagans went to parties at the home of Edgar Bergen, the famous ventriloquist, and his wife Frances. There they mingled with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Jules and Doris Stein, James and Gloria Stewart, Ray Milland, David Niven, Rosalind Russell, David Selznick and Jennifer Jones.
Ronald owned a ranch in Malibu Canyon that he had purchased before he and Nancy were married. There he kept a few horses, including thoroughbreds that he raised and sold. Ronald worked the ranch, built fences, cleaned the stables, and maintained the property, and Nancy often helped by painting fences and doing other small jobs. It had been their habit to get out to the ranch on weekends, and as the children grew, the Reagans would take them riding at the ranch whenever they could.
Ronald made a few movies during the years he was with General Electric, and Nancy worked a little bit in television. In 1957, they made one movie together, Hellcats of the Navy, which would be Nancy’s last film. Nancy had suffered two miscarriages since Patti’s birth, and she finally gave birth to their son, Ronald Prescott, on May 20, 1958.
Ronald continued as host of General Electric Theater until it was cancelled in 1962. Once again, he was out of work. He made one last film, The Killers, with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes. It was a violent film, and he was cast against type as a villain. The public just wouldn’t buy Ronald Reagan as a villain, and the film flopped. After that, there were no more movie offers.
But Ronald had become a popular public speaker in his travels with General Electric, so he kept busy as a paid speaker around the country. His speeches had become increasingly political -- and conservative -- and he was in demand by business groups and conservative organizations. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Ronald volunteered almost full time on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Ronald delivered a speech at a Goldwater fundraiser that received a great deal of attention from some wealthy Goldwater supporters. Together they raised enough money to purchase a half hour of air time on NBC television, and on October 27, 1964, Ronald delivered his speech to a national audience. That speech brought as much attention to Reagan as it did to Goldwater, and though Goldwater ultimately lost the election, Ronald Reagan’s political career was launched.
Soon after he delivered “The Speech,” as it would be known, a group of wealthy Republicans began urging Ronald to run for governor of California as the Republican candidate against the incumbent, Edmund “Pat” Brown. Ronald had just signed a two-year contract to host a weekly television series, Death Valley Days. The Reagans were reluctant to take a chance that might jeopardize their financial situation, and Nancy wasn’t eager to enter the world of politics. But the members of the Kitchen Cabinet, as they would later be called, wouldn’t give up, and kept pressing.
By February of 1965, after much discussion with Nancy, Ronald decided to explore a possible gubernatorial run. He began traveling around the state giving speeches to see if the voters would support him. Polls showed him as a popular contender, and donations started coming in. On January 4, 1966, Ronald Reagan declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor, and went on to win the primary easily.
Nancy was involved in the campaign from the beginning. She accompanied him on his trips, and eventually she was encouraged to make her own campaign appearances. Despite her acting background, Nancy was somewhat shy, and wasn’t enthusiastic about making speeches at first. She began by taking questions from an audience, and eventually came to enjoy campaigning on her own.
Finally it was Election Day. The Reagans and their friends gathered at the home of Earle and Marion Jorgensen that night to await the election results. Ronald Reagan won the election by a decisive margin, and the election night gathering at the Jorgensens became tradition.
January 3, 1967
Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as Governor of California just after midnight on January 3, 1967 in a small, quiet ceremony. A large, public inauguration took place two days later, on January 5th. At first, Nancy’s focus was on getting her family settled into their new lives. Fourteen-year-old Patti was away at school in Arizona, but Ron, age eight, was in the middle of a semester at his school in Los Angeles. Nancy “commuted” from Los Angeles to Sacramento for a few months until school was out.
It wasn’t long before Nancy Reagan’s first encounter with a hostile press. After spending years in the public eye as Hollywood celebrities, the Reagans had considerable experience with the media. Still, nothing prepared Nancy for the scrutiny she endured as California’s First Lady.
The Reagans had officially moved into the governor’s mansion, a Victorian home originally built in 1877. The mansion was located on a very busy street downtown, and traffic zoomed by at all hours of the day and night. There was a motel across the street and gas stations on the adjacent corners, and it backed up to the American Legion Hall. It was noisy, and even worse, it was a fire hazard. Mrs. Edmund “Pat” Brown, Nancy’s predecessor, told Nancy that the house had extensive dry rot, and that she and Governor Brown wanted to have a new mansion built but had failed to get approval. Nancy didn’t feel her family was safe there, especially after a fire alarm went off one day and she had to grab young Ron and run out of the house. It was a false alarm, but in talking with the Fire Chief afterwards, she discovered that had it been an actual fire, the only escape from the upper floors would have been by shimmying down a rope from an upstairs window. Three months after moving in, the Reagans moved out of the governor’s mansion and into a home in the suburbs they leased from friends. Though the governor’s family was supposed to receive free housing, Ronald and Nancy paid the rent themselves.
The Reagans weathered the criticism brought on by their move, but it wasn’t over yet. To furnish the new “executive residence,” Nancy asked for donations of furniture, especially antique or old California pieces, which would be suitable for use in the governor’s official residence. Donations would be considered tax-deductible as the furniture would become property of the State of California for use in the governors’ residences in the future. Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the California legislature, suggested that Nancy was accumulating the furniture for the Reagans’ personal use, and the media picked up on the story. Nancy had had enough, and held a press conference in order to address the issue. She answered everyone’s questions about the furniture, the new executive residence, the rent they paid, and anything else. This finally diffused the situation and the press left Nancy alone for a little while.
As her husband settled into the business of running the state, Nancy began to look for worthwhile projects to champion as first lady. As a doctor’s daughter, she was naturally interested in helping the sick. She began visiting hospitals, talking and listening to the patients. It was in one of these visits she learned about Foster Grandparents, a program founded by Sargent Shriver which paired elderly people and needy children. The adults were often lonely, and the program provided them with an opportunity to be a role model to children who needed their patience and experience. The children, often mentally handicapped or institutionalized, benefitted from the attention and love they received from the seniors. The “grandparents” tutored and mentored the children, and provided support and guidance. Nancy was excited about the program, and was soon helping to raise public and private funding. Nancy’s sponsorship helped bring national awareness to the program, and chapters expanded in other states. Foster Grandparents is still operating nationwide, and has expanded to include deaf children and juvenile offenders.
By the end of Ronald Reagan’s second year as Governor, Nancy had settled into her position as the state’s first lady and had become much more confident in her role. Her popularity rose, and on December 13, 1968 Nancy was recognized by the Los Angeles Times as “Woman of the Year.” The paper ran an article entitled, “A Model First Lady,” commending her for doing an exemplary job as first lady, successfully navigating the difficult position she held with dignity and poise. The paper praised her as being “informed, interested and beautifully turned out day after day.” At about that same time, Nancy was named to the International Best Dressed List for the first time. She would go on to be included in that list for several more years, and eventually would be elevated to the Hall of Fame.
In September of 1969, President Nixon asked Governor and Mrs. Reagan to represent the United States at the opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It was a successful trip, and the President congratulated and thanked them for being “superb Ambassadors of goodwill.”
In 1970, Governor Reagan ran for and easily won reelection, and during his second term President Nixon called upon him several more times to represent America around the world. In October of 1971, President Nixon sent the Reagans on a trip to Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, with the goal of reassuring our allies that Nixon’s upcoming meeting with Communist China would not affect their relationship with the United States. In July of 1972, President Nixon sent Ronald and Nancy to Europe, where the Governor met with the prime ministers of Britain, France, Italy and Denmark. While in Spain, Ronald and Nancy met with Generalissimo Franco, and the future king and queen, Juan Carlos and Sofia. They had an audience with Pope Paul VI, and cruised on the Queen of Denmark’s yacht. They concluded their European trip with a visit to Ireland, Ronald’s ancestral homeland.
Though President Nixon had feared that Governor Reagan might seek the Republican nomination for president in 1972, Ronald threw his full support behind the president and campaigned on his behalf. The Reagans attended the Presidential Inauguration in 1973, and hosted one of the four inaugural balls. At President Nixon’s request, Ronald and Nancy made one more trip to the Far East in late 1973.
The cause most important to Mrs. Reagan as First Lady of California was that of Vietnam War veterans, prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. She was deeply grateful to those who had fought on behalf of our nation, and dismayed that they were not welcomed home by the public as the heroes they were. She began by visiting veterans’ hospitals, where she would sit with wounded soldiers for hours on end. She would read to them, listen to them, and call their families for them. She was asked to write a weekly newspaper column about military families, and made sure that the compensation she received was sent directly to the National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.
When the first planeloads of returning POWs landed in California, Governor and Mrs. Reagan were waiting to greet them. Nancy organized a series of dinners, held in the Reagan residences in Sacramento and Los Angeles, to welcome them home. Soldiers brought their wives, parents, children -- whomever they wanted to include. At one of the dinners, upon hearing each other’s names two POWs suddenly jumped up and embraced. They had been held in adjoining cells and had developed a close friendship, communicating by tapping in code on the wall between them. They met face-to-face that night for the first time. At another dinner, a former POW attended with the aid of his son, a young Marine. The father had been held for years in a tin hut, forced to remain bent at the waist, and had not spoken a word since his release. During dinner, he surprised everyone as he stood and began to sing, “God Bless America.” There were many similar heartwarming moments, and to this day Nancy believes that the Reagans’ involvement with the POWs and MIAs was the high point of their years in Sacramento.
By the end of his second term as Governor of California in 1974, Ronald Reagan had accomplished a great deal. The state budget was running a surplus, and taxpayers had received $5 billion dollars back in the form of rebates, credits and property tax cuts. His welfare reforms had resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being moved off the welfare rolls and into productive jobs. Nancy had successes of her own. The old Victorian Governor’s Mansion would be preserved as a State Historic Site, and a new governor’s mansion had been built. Foster Grandparents was expanding nationwide, and she and Ronald had hosted four dinners for returning Vietnam War soldiers. Ronald and Nancy left Sacramento with high approval ratings, and couldn’t wait to get home to Los Angeles.
In 1975, Ronald and Nancy returned to private life in Los Angeles. They still had their home in Pacific Palisades, and they had purchased a ranch north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Mountains. They called it Rancho del Cielo, which means “Ranch in the Sky.” It was a beautiful piece of property, and the Reagans fell in love with it. There was a very small adobe house that had been built in 1871, and Ronald and Nancy spent weekends fixing it up. They kept horses and a few cattle, and there was always a project going to improve the property. The ranch became a sanctuary for Ronald and Nancy, one that they would return to whenever they got a chance for the next twenty years.
Nancy continued her involvement with Foster Grandparents, but was content to be home again in her role as a wife and mother. Ronald was in demand as a speaker, and he also had a syndicated column that ran in more than two hundred newspapers and a five-minute radio program, Viewpoint, that aired weekdays on nearly three hundred radio stations. It was the perfect job for Ronald, as it provided the opportunity for him to continue to communicate his beliefs, and still allowed him plenty of time with Nancy at their beloved ranch.
Eventually, some Republicans began to urge Ronald to run for President in the 1976 election. After the resignation of President Nixon, the Republican Party was badly damaged and had suffered losses during the midterm elections in 1974. Though Gerald Ford, who had become President after Nixon left, planned to run for reelection, conservatives felt a new, fresh face would give the Republicans a better chance of holding on to the presidency. Ronald always believed that a candidate doesn’t make the decision to run for president, the people make it for him. For Nancy’s part, though she treasured her normal, private life, she had always backed her husband’s decisions. If he felt strongly about running for President, she would support him.
Nancy campaigned hard on behalf of her husband. She traveled on busses, cars and planes from town to town, usually with Ronald but sometimes on her own. She visited hospitals, women’s groups, colleges and nursing homes. It was a tough campaign and the Reagan supporters fought hard, but in the end Governor Reagan didn’t have enough votes for the nomination. President Ford became the Republican nominee, but was defeated in the general election by Jimmy Carter.
Ronald went back to his radio show and newspaper column, but neither he nor his supporters had given up on the dream of the presidency. By 1979, he was the top contender for the Republican nomination, and on November 13, 1979, he announced his candidacy. Another long, hard campaign was to follow, but this time he emerged the victor. On November 4, 1980, Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected the fortieth President of the United States.
1981 – 1988
Americans have always looked to the White House as a symbol of inspiration in times of uncertainty and of celebration in times of joy. On January 27, after only one week in office, President and Mrs. Reagan welcomed home the fifty-two American hostages who had been held in Iran. Though the holidays were by then over, President and Mrs. Reagan celebrated the hostages’ return by lighting the national Christmas tree, which had remained dark during their 444 days of captivity. It was a bittersweet ceremony, as the president and first lady also honored the courage of the eight men who lost their lives in an earlier failed rescue attempt.
In addition to the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony each year, Mrs. Reagan served as hostess to other holidays at the White House. Her favorite was the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. The event had a long history at the White House, but Mrs. Reagan expanded upon the event by introducing a collection of little wooden eggs painted by famous artists and illustrators. The collection grew, and came to be known as the Nancy Reagan White House Easter Egg Collection. At the annual Easter Egg Roll, children hunted for eggs, while clowns and cartoon characters roamed the lawn, handing out balloons and eggs autographed by celebrities. By 1988, it was estimated that Nancy Reagan’s Easter Egg Roll attracted 35,000 visitors to the White House.
On July 4, 1986, President and Mrs. Reagan unveiled the refurbished Statue of Liberty on the occasion of the statue’s centennial celebration. Mrs. Reagan had the honor of cutting the official ribbon, and she then led visitors up the stairs for the first time following a two-year restoration period. She later welcomed guests at the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
There would be many somber moments over which President and Mrs. Reagan would preside during the course of their eight years in the White House. In April of 1983 and again in October of the same year, suicide bombings in Lebanon, Beirut took the lives of American civilians and soldiers. The President and Mrs. Reagan attempted to reassure the nation, and to comfort the families of the victims. In January of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, taking the lives of the seven astronauts aboard. The president and first lady, attending the memorial service in Houston, mourned with the entire nation.
In December of 1984, President and Mrs. Reagan officially presented to the American people the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The day had special meaning for the president and first lady, as their connection to the Vietnam War and those who served in the conflict had begun many years earlier. As Governor and First Lady of California, they had welcomed home American prisoners of war and had championed the cause of soldiers missing in action. Mrs. Reagan had spent countless hours visiting wounded servicemen in Veterans hospitals. President and Mrs. Reagan were proud to dedicate a monument to honor those who gave all in the cause of freedom.
January 20, 1981
President-elect Ronald Reagan and soon-to-be First Lady Nancy Reagan relocated to Washington, D.C. on January 14, 1981. Pending the January 20th inaugural they moved into Blair House, the official guest house for foreign leaders, and Ronald prepared to take office.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Reagan needed to hire her own staff, which would number about twenty, including a chief of staff, social secretary, and press secretary. She reviewed hundreds of resumes and conducted numerous interviews. She and her husband attended various receptions, luncheons and dinners during that week, and family and friends arrived from all over the country. Finally, it was Inauguration Day, and Ronald Reagan became President Ronald Reagan. Holding the Reagan family bible, Nancy Reagan stood beside her husband as he took the oath of office.
Mrs. Reagan was surprised and somewhat disappointed at the condition of the White House. She had envisioned that “America’s house” would be beautiful and majestic, a fitting and inspiring place to welcome foreign dignitaries. But there were cracks in the plaster, chipped paint, and worn floors and carpet. The White House was badly in need of restoration. Because the nation was in the midst of tough times economically, Mrs. Reagan had no intention of spending public funds for the work and she sought private funding. Donations large and small came in from around the country, and the work began. The White House Historical Association praised Mrs. Reagan for “her outstanding leadership in directing the refurbishing of the second and third floors of the White House and for the restoration of its fine arts collection.” Despite this endorsement and the support of the many citizens who donated to the project, the media seized on the project as an opportunity to criticize the first lady and her “spendthrift ways.” It was the first of many things the media would find fault with, and Mrs. Reagan found herself battling an “image problem” for the first two years in Washington.
March 30, 1981
March 30, 1981 began as a typical morning in the White House. President Reagan was up at seven o’clock and prepared for the day. He and Mrs. Reagan ate breakfast together as usual, then he kissed her goodbye and headed down to the Oval Office. His schedule for the day was a relatively easy one – a few meetings in the morning and a speech at the Washington Hilton in the afternoon. Mrs. Reagan read the morning papers and prepared for a luncheon at the Phillips Gallery. During the luncheon, Mrs. Reagan developed an inexplicable and overwhelming feeling that she should return to the White House. She had never felt this way before, and never would again. She just knew she had to get back home. When she arrived, she sought out White House usher Rex Scouten and Ted Graber, the decorator who was helping with the renovation, and found them in the solarium. Suddenly, George Opfer, her lead Secret Service agent, interrupted to tell her there had been a shooting at the hotel, and while her husband hadn’t been hit, several others had been wounded. He said the President’s limousine had been diverted to George Washington University Hospital as a precaution. Her Secret Service detail tried to convince her to stay at the White House, but Mrs. Reagan was determined to be with her husband. She announced that if they didn’t take her to him, she’d walk.
By the time Mrs. Reagan arrived at the hospital, doctors had determined that the President had indeed been hit, and that he was in grave danger. When doctors finally allowed Mrs. Reagan to see her husband, he was still conscious and aware of his surroundings. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he whispered to her. The President was taken into surgery, where it was discovered a bullet had entered under his left arm, punctured his lung and had nearly hit his heart. Mrs. Reagan waited and prayed with friends in the hospital chapel. Finally, when the President came out of surgery, Mrs. Reagan was taken to him along with their son, Ron, and his wife, Doria, who had arrived at the hospital. The other children came as soon as they could.
President Reagan spent nearly two weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds before he was able to return to the White House. For Mrs. Reagan, nothing would ever be the same. Her husband had almost been killed, and from then on, she would fear for his safety every day.
July 2, 1981
While First Lady of California, Mrs. Reagan had championed the Foster Grandparents program, which brings together senior citizens and disadvantaged children, and the program benefited greatly from her support. As First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Reagan helped expand the program on a national level and promoted private funding in local communities.
Mrs. Reagan resumed her work with Foster Grandparents almost as soon as she came to the White House. She attended a few events in her earliest months as first lady, while also handling the refurbishing of the White House and attending other official events. The first major event she attended for Foster Grandparents was the National Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1981. Soon afterwards, she was featured on the Mike Douglas Show, which helped bring national awareness to the program.
With Jane Wilkie, Mrs. Reagan coauthored a book, To Love a Child, and a song by the same title was written and dedicated to her. The song was recorded by Frank Sinatra, and all proceeds from the book and the record benefited the Foster Grandparents program. In October of 1982, Mrs. Reagan hosted a picnic lunch for 600 local foster grandparents and children at the White House, and Frank Sinatra performed the song.
Mrs. Reagan continued to work on behalf of the program for her eight years in the White House. In June of 1988 she visited Walt Disney World with 500 foster grandparents, and enlisted Mickey Mouse as an Honorary Foster Grandparent. As a measure of the power of a first lady’s attention, in the program’s first year of operation 782 foster grandparents had carried out thirty-three projects in twenty-seven states. By 1985, approximately 19,000 foster grandparents served some 65,000 children through 245 projects in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
July 29, 1981
The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981, was one of the most celebrated spectacles of the decade. Due to the recent attempt on his life, President Reagan could not attend, but he encouraged Mrs. Reagan to serve as the United States representative at the event. Mrs. Reagan spent one week in London, which is the longest she had been away from her husband in twenty-nine years. She attended eighteen events on behalf of the nation, including a ball at Buckingham Palace, a dinner at the American Embassy, tea with the Queen Mother, and lunch with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She also placed flowers at the Memorial to Britain’s Unknown Soldier and visited a veterans’ hospital.
Mrs. Reagan was an especially appropriate delegate for the United States to send to the Royal Wedding. The Reagans had met Prince Charles many years earlier, when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. Also, in March of 1975 Ronald and Nancy had met Margaret Thatcher, and the future president and future prime minister found they shared a special connection even then. Ronald Reagan later recalled thinking that they were “soul mates” in their beliefs in limited government and expanding economic freedom.
Over the years, President and Mrs. Reagan expressed their immense respect for their British friends in many ways, saving the first and last state dinners to honor Margaret Thatcher. Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II attended the first dinner in February 1981, and the Queen returned the honor when she hosted a state dinner for the Reagans’ visit to London when the president addressed Parliament in 1982. On this occasion, President and Mrs. Reagan received a rare invitation to stay for two days at Windsor Castle with the royal family. President Reagan would later recall the warm hospitality of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in his autobiography, referring to their stay as a “fairytale visit.” The highlight of their stay was when the president and the queen went horseback riding together, and Mrs. Reagan and Prince Philip took a horse-drawn carriage ride.
In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Rancho del Cielo, the Reagans’ Santa Barbara ranch, and invited President and Mrs. Reagan aboard the royal yacht Brittania to celebrate an anniversary dinner.
President and Mrs. Reagan hosted the Prince and Princess of Wales at a White House dinner in November of 1985, which became one of the most memorable of the state dinners due to the impromptu and charming dance between Princess Diana and John Travolta. Earlier that year, Mrs. Reagan had again represented the United States at another Royal Wedding, that of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
Mrs. Reagan first became aware of the drug problem in America when she learned that the children of many of her friends were using drugs – some had even committed suicide as a result. It had a big effect on her. In a 1980 campaign trip she had visited Daytop Village, a substance abuse treatment center in New York. She was impressed by the work that was being done there to help young people recover from drug dependency. She never forgot the experience, and as first lady she began to actively campaign against drug and alcohol abuse.
In the early months as first lady, she visited several drug treatment centers, met with the Board of Directors for the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth, and attended a meeting of the American Council on Marijuana. By mid-1982 she had addressed the National Legislative Session of the PTA regarding the drug abuse problem, attended conferences in several states, and on October 11, 1982, she attended the first National Conference of the National Federation for Drug-Free Youth.
A name for Mrs. Reagan’s cause was chosen after she met with schoolchildren in Oakland. “A little girl raised her hand,” Mrs. Reagan recalled, “and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just say no.’ And there it was born.” The phrase caught on, and was eventually adopted as the name for clubs and school anti-drug programs. By 1988 more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs had been formed across the country and around the world.
Mrs. Reagan traveled more than 250,000 miles throughout the United States and around the world. She traveled to sixty-five cities in thirty-three states, the Vatican and eight other foreign countries. In 1984 alone, she made 110 appearances and fourteen anti-drug speeches. She visited drug abuse prevention programs and rehabilitation centers, appeared on radio and television in public service announcements and on talk shows to get her message across. She appeared as herself in an episode of the popular sitcom Diff’rent Strokes.
In April of 1985, Mrs. Reagan invited the wives of world leaders to attend a First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse at the White House and was joined by eighteen first ladies. In October of that same year, during the United Nations’ 40th anniversary, thirty first ladies joined her in New York for the second First Ladies Conference.
On October 27, 1986, President Reagan signed the “National Crusade for a Drug Free America” anti-drug abuse bill into law, and Mrs. Reagan considered it a personal victory. And on October 25, 1988, Mrs. Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly, urging the United States to do more to solve the drug problem through education and law enforcement directed at drug users. She said that developing nations must still work with the United States to suppress drug production and smuggling, but the United States could do more to curb the demand created by its own citizens.
One of Mrs. Reagan’s most treasured memories of her years as first lady is of her visit with His Holiness Pope John Paul II on September 16, 1987. She met the Pope with her husband on other occasions, but this time, when they visited Immaculate Conception School in Los Angeles, she met with him alone and they discussed her anti-drug crusade.
Mrs. Reagan’s efforts to save children from the dangers of drug abuse were rewarded. Of all of her accomplishments as first lady, the reduction in drug abuse by young people is the one of which she is most proud. Cocaine use by high school seniors dropped by one-third, from 6.2 percent in 1986 to 4.3 percent in 1987, the lowest level in a decade. More than 10 percent of the members of the class of 1978 said they used marijuana daily, but by 1987 the figure was only about 3 percent among high school seniors.
Upon leaving the White House, Mrs. Reagan established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to continue her campaign against drug abuse. The Nancy Reagan Foundation merged with the BEST Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow in 1994, which developed the Nancy Reagan Afterschool Program. Many “Just Say No” Clubs are still active around the country.
Not long after the White House renovation incident, Mrs. Reagan again found herself a target of the press. Ted Graber, who was helping Mrs. Reagan with the renovation, asked chief usher Rex Scouten what he needed the most. The answer was “china.” The White House had not ordered a full service of china since the Truman administration, and over the years the service had dwindled to the point where it was no longer possible to set the tables for a state dinner with matching china. Mrs. Reagan asked an American china manufacturer to begin the process of designing a new pattern for the White House. A private organization, the Knapp Foundation, heard of the project, and donated enough to cover the costs. Again, though public funds were not used, Mrs. Reagan was criticized severely by the media. It escalated into such a furor that the Knapp Foundation, who had originally donated the funds anonymously, went public about the donation in a futile attempt to spare Mrs. Reagan the criticism she was receiving.
Mrs. Reagan’s wardrobe sparked yet another controversy, and provided one more opportunity for the press to attack her. Mrs. Reagan had always dressed well – it was expected of someone in the movie industry, and certainly as the wife of a governor. Mrs. Reagan was known for wearing classic styles, and some of her dresses had been in her closet for years. She brought her clothes with her to Washington, but the social demands on a first lady are great. She attends official luncheons, receptions, ceremonies, dinners and more, and at every event her outfit is photographed and reported upon. Because she needed more clothes than she could afford to purchase, Mrs. Reagan arranged to borrow outfits from some designers and friends. Borrowing from designers was a common practice in the American fashion industry, and it never occurred to Mrs. Reagan that she would be criticized for it. But the press portrayed her as obsessed with clothes – designer clothes, at that – and she endured a great deal of bad press.
By the end of her husband’s first year in office, Mrs. Reagan had acquired a number of unflattering nicknames, among them “Queen Nancy.” But in early 1982, an opportunity arose that enabled Mrs. Reagan to show the press corps a different side of her. The Gridiron Club, an exclusive, century-old organization representing journalists, holds an annual dinner designed to bring together the press and the politicians of Washington for an evening of entertainment and humor. Members of the press perform skits poking fun at the politicians, and the President often gives a speech at the conclusion of the evening. Mrs. Reagan’s staff knew the press planned to present a skit about the first lady and what the media considered to be her expensive taste and fashionable ways, and decided she should perform a skit of her own. That evening, Mrs. Reagan arrived with her husband in evening clothes as expected. During dinner, as the skit about her played out onstage, she excused herself momentarily. Some in the room thought she was upset about the ribbing she was receiving and had walked out. But in truth, she secretly went backstage and donned a ridiculous-looking costume consisting of mismatched clothes – a navy polka dotted blouse topped with a red print housedress and a blue Hawaiian-print skirt, yellow rubber rain boots, a feather boa, a long strand of pearls, and a red straw hat with feathers and flowers. She surprised everyone, including her husband, by marching out on stage and performing her own number, “Secondhand Clothes.” In lyrics set to the tune of “Secondhand Rose,” she mocked the media’s criticism of her fashion sense, and dramatically concluded her performance by smashing to the floor a replica plate from the new White House china. She received a standing ovation – and demands for an encore – from a newly-appreciative and admiring press corps. The next day the headlines read, “First lady floors ’em with song and dance,” “She sings, she jokes, she’s a hit.” And the Washington Post wrote, “…the sophisticated audience of journalists, politicians and their friends responded to her performance as though she had undergone a major change. A number of those image-makers left the ballroom saying that Nancy Reagan’s song-and-dance number had transformed her image.”
As part of her official duties, Mrs. Reagan was called upon to serve in a diplomatic capacity both at home and abroad. Mrs. Reagan accompanied her husband on many official trips, and even represented America by herself on occasion. Mrs. Reagan made over twenty trips all over the world, visiting countries in Europe, Scandinavia, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Far East, and what was then the Soviet Union. Every trip was important, but some were particularly memorable.
In November of 1983, President and Mrs. Reagan traveled to Japan and then on to Seoul, South Korea. While in South Korea, Mrs. Reagan was invited to visit an institution dedicated to helping South Korean children with heart defects. The program works to unite the sick children with U.S. hospitals that will give them the lifesaving heart surgery they need. Mrs. Reagan met two small, seriously ill children, seven-year-old Ahn Ji Sook, and four-year-old Lee Kil Woo. Mrs. Reagan insisted on taking them with her on Air Force One back to the United States, where they would receive open heart surgery at St. Francis Hospital in New York. Many years later, Lee Kil Woo would write to Mrs. Reagan to thank her for her help. Woo, now 28 years old, had been adopted by an American family and was known as Brett Halvorson. Brett and Mrs. Reagan were reunited at the Reagan Library on October 27, 2007.
In June of 1984, President and Mrs. Reagan visited Normandy for the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion. President Reagan gave a speech at Pointe du Hoc, the site of a pivotal battle in World War II, to honor the American Rangers who scaled a 100 foot cliff and overcame tremendous German resistance. From there, President and Mrs. Reagan flew to Omaha Beach, where they visited the graves of those who lost their lives that day. Mrs. Reagan later described the scene as “a heartbreaker. The sight of endless rows of white crosses and stars of David – more than nine thousand of them and they represented only a portion of the casualties of D-Day.”
Probably the most important trip Mrs. Reagan made with her husband was the state visit to Moscow in May of 1988 for the last summit meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Mrs. Reagan had met the Gorbachevs on two other occasions, when her husband and the General Secretary met for the Geneva and Washington, D.C. summits. Mrs. Gorbachev and Mrs. Reagan came from very different cultural backgrounds and had little in common. Though their husbands were beginning to feel a certain warmth for one another, the relationship between the wives had been rather frosty. Despite Mrs. Reagan’s attempts to get to know Mrs. Gorbachev better, Mrs. Gorbachev was not receptive.
While they were in Moscow, President Reagan spoke strongly and often about human rights and religious freedom. President and Mrs. Reagan held a reception at Spaso House, the American Ambassador’s residence, for one hundred dissidents and refuseniks. These individuals, who had been imprisoned, beaten and exiled in their struggle for human rights, urged President Reagan to continue to fight for freedom throughout the world. Secretary Gorbachev made it clear at the state dinner that evening that he was unhappy President Reagan had “interfered in domestic affairs.” Later, however, Secretary Gorbachev admitted to Mrs. Reagan his respect and affection for President Reagan, and told her that he wished her husband could serve as president for another four years. The following evening, President and Mrs. Reagan hosted a dinner in the Gorbachevs’ honor at Spaso House.
On the final evening of the visit, the Reagans and the Gorbachevs attended the Bolshoi Ballet, and then went to a small dacha, or guest house, for a casual dinner. After dinner, Mrs. Gorbachev spoke of the meaning of the summit and the friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Secretary Gorbachev added his own comments about how important the visit had been, to their own nations and to the entire world. A few months later, when the two women met again in New York, Mrs. Gorbachev spoke more warmly to Mrs. Reagan, saying she felt they – and their husbands – had been destined to meet and to help bring about the new relationship between their two countries. She concluded by inviting the Reagans to come see them again in Moscow, and Mrs. Reagan returned the invitation by asking the Gorbachevs to come visit her and her husband at their ranch in California.
In her memoirs, My Turn, Mrs. Reagan would refer to October of 1987 as “a terrible month.” It began on October 5, when as part of her regular health exam Mrs. Reagan went to Bethesda Naval Hospital for her annual mammogram. Her physician, Dr. John Hutton came with her. Dr. Hutton, upon viewing the X-rays, immediately suspected a problem. He thought he saw a tumor in Mrs. Reagan’s left breast, and wanted her to have a biopsy performed.
Mrs. Reagan called in Dr. Oliver Beahrs, a cancer specialist who had treated the president for his cancer operation, and who had been a former student of Mrs. Reagan’s father. After an examination, Dr. Beahrs agreed that a biopsy was in order, and scheduled it for October 177h. If the biopsy indicated the tumor was malignant, an operation could be performed at that time. In that event, Mrs. Reagan was advised she could choose between a lumpectomy, where only the tumor was removed along with a small amount of surrounding tissue, or a mastectomy, where the entire breast was removed. Mrs. Reagan chose the mastectomy, because she didn’t want to take the chance of not removing all of the cancer, and also because, given her schedule, she couldn’t undergo the weeks of radiation that would be required if she had a lumpectomy.
On the day of the surgery, the biopsy showed a malignancy, and the breast was removed. Further laboratory analysis indicated that the cancer had not spread, and President and Mrs. Reagan were relieved to hear that her prognosis was excellent and no further treatment was needed. Mrs. Reagan was released from the hospital a few days later, and was greeted by a large gathering on the South Lawn upon her return to the White House. The crowd included Foster Grandparents, young people from the Just Say No program, and others. There was even a band, which serenaded the first lady with songs such as “Ain’t She Sweet.” The First Lady went out on the balcony to say thank you and wave at her supporters.
Mrs. Reagan spent a few days recuperating in a room full of flowers sent by admirers, and reading the thousands of cards and letters that had poured into the White House since her surgery. And then tragedy struck again. In the afternoon of October 26, the President unexpectedly joined her in the Residence, sat down next to her on the edge of the bed, and delivered the terrible news. Her beloved mother had suffered a stroke, and was gone. Mrs. Reagan was devastated.
Mrs. Reagan, still not fully recovered from her surgery, flew out to Phoenix with President Reagan on Air Force One the very next day. Dr. Hutton accompanied them, so he could watch over his patient. Mrs. Reagan spent the next few days planning her mother’s funeral and settling her affairs, and then had to return to Washington. Despite her grief and her fragile physical condition, she had only a little more than a week to prepare for a state dinner for the President of Israel, and General Secretary and Mrs. Gorbachev were expected the following month.
December 8, 1987
One of the first things the wife of an American president learns is that the White House dinner is an integral part of her diplomatic responsibility. State dinners are an important part of diplomacy, and can strengthen relations between America and other nations. During their eight years in Washington, President and Mrs. Reagan hosted almost eighty White House dinners, as well as hundreds of other special events, both large and small.
Each state dinner required months of planning, and in President Reagan’s first term alone, Mrs. Reagan spent over 450 hours preparing for these events. In addition to choosing and testing the menu items, Mrs. Reagan also oversaw the choice of music and entertainment. The guest list and seating arrangements were also closely supervised by Mrs. Reagan, as were the table settings and floral arrangements.
On February 26, 1981, after only a month in office, President and Mrs. Reagan held their first state dinner in honor of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by her husband, Denis Thatcher. Several weeks later, President and Mrs. Reagan hosted Japan’s Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, and his wife. They went on to welcome kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, premiers and chancellors.
Perhaps the most momentous of these dinners was held on December 8, 1987 in honor of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa. Secretary Gorbachev was in Washington for the summit meeting that would ultimately result in the signing of the INF Treaty, and this was the first visit by a Soviet leader to Washington since Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. It was the most significant and highly anticipated of the many state dinners Mrs. Reagan had arranged, and required careful planning. Mrs. Reagan asked renowned pianist Van Cliburn to perform. In 1958, Cliburn had won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the first American to have done so. His performance of a Rachmaninoff piece and a rendition of “Moscow Nights” was received with great enthusiasm from the Soviet delegation, especially Secretary Gorbachev. Mrs. Reagan would later say that the dinner was one of the great evenings of her husband’s presidency.
January 25, 1988
In almost every State of the Union address President Reagan gave, he recognized an ordinary person who had achieved a great act and applauded them as a hero. In his last State of the Union address on January 25, 1988, he saluted a very special hero – his wife. “The war against drugs is a war of individual battles, a crusade with so many heroes – including America’s young people, and also someone very special to me. She has helped many of our young people to say ‘no’ to drugs. Nancy, much credit belongs to you, and I want to express to you your husband’s pride and your country’s thanks.” A surprised Nancy Reagan graciously and humbly accepted the president’s public recognition.
In each Annual Gallup Poll from 1981 to 1989, the American public voted Mrs. Reagan as one of the ten most admired women in the world, and in 1981, 1985 and 1987, she was voted number one. She received numerous awards for her leadership role in the fight against drug abuse, including recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the United Service Organization (USO), the Salvation Army, the Entertainment Industries Council, Rotary Clubs International, Lions Club International and from drug treatment programs such as Phoenix House and Second Genesis.
Her war on drugs was the best known of Mrs. Reagan’s causes in the White House, but she accomplished many things. In addition to serving as Honorary Chairman of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth and the “Just Say No” Foundation, the first lady also served in an honorary capacity as the chairman of the National Child Watch Campaign, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Wolf Trap Foundation Board of Trustees, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the National Republican Women’s Club, and she was the Honorary President of the Girl Scouts of America. Children’s Hospital named a room after her because of all her visits there. On March 22, 1987, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City honored Mrs. Reagan for her leadership role in promoting corporate sponsorship of the arts. She was the first non-member of the Metropolitan Opera to be honored in this way.
Mrs. Reagan also received humanitarian awards from the National Council on Alcoholism, United Cerebral Palsy and the International Center for the Disabled. She received the Boys Town Father Flannigan Award, the 1986 Kiwanis World Service Medal, and the “Lifeline Award” from Variety Clubs International. In 1987 she received a Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, from Georgetown University, and in 1983 she received an Honorary Doctor of Law degree from Pepperdine University for her commitment to public service.
The last few weeks in Washington were a bittersweet time for President and Mrs. Reagan. While they were anxious to get back to their beloved California, the White House had been their home for eight years and it was difficult to leave. They attended the annual round of Christmas parties and receptions for the diplomatic corps, press and staff. But instead of the cheerful holiday spirit that normally accompanied these parties, there was an air of sadness as everyone said their goodbyes.
Inauguration Day arrived, and President and Mrs. Reagan welcomed the Bushes into the White House. Following the inauguration ceremony, President and Mrs. Bush escorted the Reagans down the steps to the helicopter for the first leg of their journey home. As the pilot circled the White House so they could see it once more, and President Reagan leaned over to his wife and said, “Look dear, there’s our little bungalow.” As Mrs. Reagan later wrote in her memoirs, “This was really goodbye to Washington, and eight wonderful, exciting, frustrating and sometimes frightening years.”
Back in Los Angeles, the Reagans settled into their new home and their new life. Mrs. Reagan wrote her memoirs, entitled My Turn, which gave an account of her life and her experiences as first lady. In late 1989 Mrs. Reagan established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to continue her campaign against drug abuse. The Foundation would eventually join forces with the BEST Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow, and together they would establish the Nancy Reagan Afterschool Program, a drug prevention and life skills program for youth. For her efforts in this area, she has been honored with the United Cerebral Palsy Humanitarian Award, the Children’s Trust Award from the Children’s Memorial Medical Center in Chicago, the Tom Landry Medal from California Lutheran University and the Albert Schweitzer Leadership Award from the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation.
November 4, 1991
President and Mrs. Reagan began planning for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library while he was still in office. The site of the library would be a majestic hilltop in Simi Valley, California, with views of the surrounding valleys and the Pacific Ocean. On November 21, 1988 a groundbreaking ceremony was held, and construction began.
The Reagans spent quite a bit of time at Rancho del Cielo, and as the library site was located along the way they would often stop and observe the progress of construction. In April of 1990, President and Mrs. Reagan happily accepted a donation of a piece of the Berlin Wall in a special ceremony. The president was delighted by the events in Eastern Europe that had led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and pleased that his library would display this portion of the wall as a lasting symbol of freedom’s victory over tyranny.
The library was dedicated on November 4, 1991. The ceremony marked the first time that five United States presidents were assembled in the same place: Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. All of their wives attended with them, as well as former first lady Lady Bird Johnson and members of the first families. The audience also included U.S. officials and foreign dignitaries, celebrities, and hundreds of other guests.
In describing his Presidential Library that day, President Reagan said of future visitors: “They will observe an American President and a Soviet leader sitting in a boat house on the shores of Lake Geneva striving to banish the nuclear nightmare from the dreams of all our children. They will see tears of pride from the boys of Point du Hoc. They will hear the thrusting engines of Challenger lifting off on a heartbreaking final mission. They will be introduced to a warm and selfless first lady who reached out to a generation of young Americans threatened by the scourge of drugs and who put a comforting arm around an older generation through the Foster Grandparents program. They'll catch the sinister crackle of would-be assassins' weapons, one that forever changed the life of Jim and Sarah Brady, while reconfirming my belief that whatever time remained to me was to be spent in service to the American people and in accord with the Lord's wishes.
“No doubt many visitors will stand in the replica of my oval office, perhaps they will sense a little of the loneliness that comes with decision making on a global scale or the stabbing pain inflicted by a terrorist bomb half a world away or the dread sound of the telephone in the middle of the night with news of hostile actions.
“They will also feel some of the immense pride that comes to any President in that office as he comes into daily contact with the American heroes whose faith in themselves, their mission and their mandate is a never ending source of emotional renewal.”
He concluded his remarks that day by saying, “ I have no fears of that as we have done our best and so I say come and learn from it. My fondest hope is that Americans will travel the road extending forward from the arch of experience, never forgetting our heroic origins, never failing to seek divine guidance as we march boldly, bravely into a future limited only by our capacity to dream.”
November 5, 1994
When they left Washington, President and Mrs. Reagan had looked forward to their “golden years,” when they could enjoy some well-earned leisure time doing the things they loved together, and reflect upon a lifetime of memories and achievements. Sadly, their “golden years” were cut short with the diagnosis that the president suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. President and Mrs. Reagan made the courageous decision to share the president’s diagnosis with the American people, in the hopes that it would raise awareness of the condition and promote understanding and compassion for those who were affected by the cruel disease.
President and Mrs. Reagan realized the need for increased research into prevention, treatments and, ultimately, a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and in October of 1995, they joined forces with the National Alzheimer’s Association by forming an Alzheimer’s Association affiliate, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute.
In September of 2000, Mrs. Reagan released a collection of letters sent to her over the years by her husband, entitled I Love You, Ronnie – The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. The proceeds from the book are split between the Reagan Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Association.
Mrs. Reagan has said that Alzheimer’s disease is “truly a long, long goodbye.” The remaining years of President Reagan’s life were spent mainly at home, with his beloved Nancy at his side. She was his caregiver and his protector, seldom leaving his side throughout the ten year ordeal. Her rare moments away from him were spent raising money for Alzheimer’s research and representing her husband at Republican Party events. She has been determined to see that her husband’s achievements are remembered and that his work will continue through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
August 12, 1996
As Alzheimer’s disease slowly took her husband away from her, Mrs. Reagan was called upon again and again to carry on in his place. While all she had ever wanted from her life after Washington was to live in quiet retirement, she found herself in the position of often being asked to represent her husband, who could no longer speak publicly for himself. For the most part, she was busy caring for her husband and had little desire to step into the spotlight, so she declined the majority of these requests. But in 1996, with Bob Dole the expected Republican nominee for President, someone in the Dole campaign asked Mrs. Reagan if she would give a speech at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. It would be the first Republican convention since the 1960s that wouldn’t feature Ronald Reagan, and the Party would love it if she would represent him.
Mrs. Reagan was reluctant at first. Despite her years as first lady, with all the public appearances the job entails, she wasn’t really comfortable as a speaker, especially to a crowd of thousands of delegates and a huge television audience. She didn’t know how she could even attend without her husband by her side. She called her friend Mike Deaver for advice. While Mike understood her reluctance, he encouraged her to accept. He knew the Party needed her presence for the sake of morale, but he also knew that, though President Reagan could not attend, he would be watching from home and it would cheer him. Mrs. Reagan agreed, and became only the second first lady (after Eleanor Roosevelt) and the first Republican to do so.
Deaver arranged for a video tribute to the Reagans that would run just before Mrs. Reagan took the stage. As the lights turned back on after the video, Mrs. Reagan was standing at the podium and the crowd went wild. When the audience finally quieted, she addressed the gathering:
“… Just four years ago, Ronnie stood before you and spoke for what he said might be his last speech at a Republican convention. Sadly, his words were too prophetic. When we learned of his illness, Alzheimer’s, he made the decision to write his letter to the American people, and the people responded as they always do. I can’t tell you what your cards and letters have meant to both of us. The love and affection from thousands of Americans has been and continues to be a strengthening force for Ronnie and me each and every day.
“…But Ronnie’s spirit, his optimism, his never failing belief in the strength and goodness of America is still very strong… I can tell you with certainty that he still sees the shining city on the hill, a place full of hope and promise for us all.
“…Ronnie’s optimism, like America’s, still shines very brightly. May God bless him, and from both of us, God bless America.”
March 4, 2001
Historically, most United States Navy ships are named in honor of someone of importance who is no longer living. In recent years, however, this tradition has been changing. There are now several ships that have been named after living people, usually former members of the U.S. Navy. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is the first aircraft carrier to be named after a living former president.
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is the ninth of ten Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The contract for the ship was awarded in December of 1994, and her keel was laid in February of 1998. Though she rarely left her husband, Mrs. Reagan traveled to Newport News, Virginia for the launching of the ship on March 4, 2001. As ship’s sponsor, she christened the ship by breaking the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow, soaking herself and President George W. Bush with champagne in the process. It was an especially meaningful moment for Mrs. Reagan – the day she christened the ship that bears her husband’s name was their forth-ninth anniversary.
As ship’s sponsor, Mrs. Reagan would be present again for two more important ceremonies. On July 12, 2003, she went to the commissioning ceremony at Norfolk Naval Center in Norfolk, Virginia, giving the traditional first order to the ship’s crew: “Man the ship and bring her to life.” And on July 23, 2004, just weeks after her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Reagan was on hand in San Diego to welcome the USS Ronald Reagan to its new home port. In her remarks at the homeporting ceremony, she said, “Ronnie would have loved the sight of this great ship coming into his beloved California. I know how proud he was to have this ship named after him, and in my heart I know he’s looking down on us today and smiling.”
May 16, 2002
Mrs. Reagan spent the final decade of her husband’s life caring for him at home as he battled Alzheimer’s Disease. She rarely left his side, and on the rare afternoons or evenings that she went out for a lunch or dinner with friends she was never very far away. She was always the first to leave any gathering so she could get home to him.
Though reluctant to travel, two occasions compelled her to return to Washington: the presentations of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On May 17, 2002, Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to President and Mrs. Reagan. The Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor Congress can award. A two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives and the support of sixty-seven Senators is required to sponsor the legislation. Mrs. Reagan received the medal in the Capitol Rotunda from President George W. Bush, who recognized President Reagan as “one of the largest figures of our time. His name will always stand for courage and consistency, for patriotism and resolve, and for humor and optimism.” He went on to say, “At every step of an amazing life, Nancy Reagan has been at Ronald’s side… They set out to make a life together and this amazing partnership helped change the world.” During the ceremony, President and Mrs. Reagan were lauded by Congressmen and Senators. Congressman Jim Gibbons, sponsor of the resolution in the House of Representatives, declared, “I maintain that our nation’s future has been guided by the great dreams and remarkable courage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” In his remarks, Senator Ted Stevens said, “But for the vision of one man, the Berlin Wall would probably still be standing… While the president’s words overseas changed history, Nancy Reagan’s words at home charged parents and children to just say no to drugs and drug abuse… We thank Ron and Nancy for teaching us to believe in ourselves and believe in Ron and Nancy’s shining city, set on top of the hill.” And Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev sent a letter to the Reagans, which was read at the ceremony: “While working to address vitally important issues, we changed the nature of relations between our two countries, by building trust and verifying it with concrete deeds. It is our legacy to a new generation of policymakers... I salute Ronald and Nancy Reagan.”
Later that same year, Mrs. Reagan again traveled to Washington, this time to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow. In recognizing Mrs. Reagan at the ceremony, President George W. Bush said, “Nancy Reagan has devoted herself to her family and her country. As First Lady of California, she spoke out eloquently on behalf of POWs and American service men missing in action. As First Lady of the United States, she led an anti-drug campaign that helped reduce teenage drug abuse. Today, we honor Nancy Reagan for her eloquent example of loyalty and courage and abiding love.”
May 8, 2004
On May 8, 2004, Nancy Reagan was honored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at a special event called, “Finding a Cure… A Love Story.” That evening, she stepped up to the podium and, in her first public statement on the subject, advocated for stem cell research.
“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place – where I can no longer reach him. We can’t share the wonderful memories of our fifty-two years together, and I think that’s probably the hardest part. Because of this, I’m determined to do what I can to save other families from this pain.
“And now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp. I don’t see how we can turn our backs on this. There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped. We’ve lost so much time already. I can’t bear to lose any more.”
Nancy Reagan’s advocacy of stem cell research was not something she entered into impulsively. Rather, she considered the issue very carefully before taking a public stance. Even before stem cell research became a household word, Mrs. Reagan was searching for information on possible cures for Alzhiemer’s disease. She was also concerned for the plight of victims of other diseases, especially diabetes. The daughter of a dear friend had been diagnosed with Type I juvenile diabetes when she was eight years old. Her parents, Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, founded CuresNow, an organization whose purpose was to lobby Congress for diabetes research funding. Doug, a Hollywood film producer, decided to use the 1999 premier of his new film, Stuart Little, to draw attention to the disease. He invited Mrs. Reagan to attend the event, and in the press line that night Mrs. Reagan was besieged by reporters. When asked why she had come, she responded, “I’m here because I want to help my friend, Tessa Wick, who has juvenile diabetes.” The response was phenomenal – CuresNow was deluged with calls over the next few days.
The more Mrs. Reagan learned, the more she became convinced that stem cells were the most promising treatment not only for Alzheimer’s disease and juvenile diabetes, but also for other diseases, including heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. Tests had shown that stem cells had the ability to regenerate neural pathways and to help repair diseased and damaged organs. Unfortunately, stem cell research was highly controversial, as the cells were harvested from discarded human embryos. Pro-life advocates, including President George W. Bush, considered any destruction of a human embryo to be tantamount to murder, even if those embryos were destined to be destroyed when they were discarded by fertility clinics.
On April 11, 2001, Mrs. Reagan wrote a heartfelt letter to President Bush, detailing her reasons for supporting stem cell research, and asking him to see the issue from the point of view of those whose lives might be saved as a result of the research. She wrote:
Dear Mr. President,
As you know, Ronnie recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday. In earlier times, we would have been able to share our mutual pride in a life filled with wonderful memories. Now, while I can draw strength from these memories, I do it alone as Ronnie struggles in a world unknown to me or the scientists who devote their lives to Alzheimer’s research. Because of this, I am determined to do what I can to save others from this pain and anguish. I’m writing, therefore, to ask your help in supporting what appears to be the most promising path to a cure – stem cell research.
I also know that this is not the first you have heard of this issue. And I know there are others who feel just as strongly in opposition to this. But I ask your help to ensure that this embryonic stem cell research, under appropriate guidelines, be protected as scientists pursue medical miracle possibilities.
Ronnie was very brave in writing to the public about his condition. It was his way of sharing with the thousands of families who are already afflicted. He always believed in man’s ability to make this a better world, and I know he would be gratified to know that his own suffering might spare others the same wrenching family journey.
Mr. President, I have some personal experience regarding the many decisions you face each day. I do not want to add to that burden, but I’d be very grateful if you would take my thoughts and prayers into your consideration on this critical issue.
In August of that year, President Bush issued the only compromise he could live with. While he didn’t outright ban federal funding for stem cell research, he restricted it to the stem cell lines that had already been obtained – and therefore preventing the use of federal funds to obtain new stem cells and destroying any more embryos.
Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate on both sides of the issue. Because there has been some confusion as to what stem cell research entails – some people thought it would lead to human cloning – Mrs. Reagan is working behind the scenes to increase awareness of the issue and to encourage lawmakers to consider supporting legislation to fund the research.
June 5, 2004
When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated in 1991, the former president and his first lady chose it as their final resting place, inspired by its quiet dignity and beautiful vistas.
Nancy Reagan never wanted to be anyplace except by her husband’s side. The woman who stood with him through his rise and tended to him during his decline faced a week of difficult ceremonies as she prepared to say goodbye to her husband, who passed away on June 5, 2004. Unquestionably, her last commitment was to lay him to rest and to allow the public to have a chance to pay their respects.
At the final moment, when his breathing was labored, he opened his eyes and gazed straight at his loving wife. His eyes were clear and blue and full of love. It was “the greatest gift” he could have given her.
A dear family friend expressed the concern of millions of Americans. “I don’t know how she did it. I just – we all prayed for her. We all thought about her.” The ceremonies began as Nancy Reagan, slow in step, shepherded the casket with quiet intensity, turning the most public of events into a series of private moments.
First, her husband lay in repose at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where more than 100,000 mourners paid their respects in a thirty-four-hour vigil. Handling everything with selfless grace and dignity, Mrs. Reagan then accompanied the casket aboard the current Air Force One aircraft, traveling to Washington where the rotunda of the Capitol would provide another opportunity for Americans to say farewell to the fortieth president.
The procession from Andrews Air Force Base to the Capitol stunned Mrs. Reagan. While she privately grieved for her husband’s loss, the public outpouring along the fourteen-mile route overwhelmed her. Boy Scouts in khaki shorts waving flags and saluting, office workers with ID tags around their necks in tears, tourists holding signs “You’ll Always Be Our First Lady,” and “We Love You, Nancy” – it was a visual spectacle embracing her husband and the woman who loved him.
In the Capitol rotunda ceremony, Mrs. Reagan caressed the flag-covered coffin and rested her head against it lovingly, opening the way for dignitaries who arrived from around the world.
While Americans paid their respects at the Capitol, Mrs. Reagan accepted visitors at Blair House. Mikhail Gorbachev arrived. “He’s been so sweet to me,” she later remarked. “He stood there at the door and I looked up and there he was with his arms outstretched. And I went over to him and he hugged me. And we just stood there. It was so sweet.” Margaret Thatcher, who was the first to see Mrs. Reagan, wrote in the condolence book, “To Ronne: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Services at the National Cathedral saluted not only the president but also his wife. “We seek to comfort you,” President Bush explained, “to tell you of our admiration for your courage and your selfless caring.” Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled an old story: when Nancy and his wife, Mila, stepped out of a car looking “like a million bucks….President Reagan beamed, threw his arm around my shoulder and said with a grin, ‘You know, Brian, for two Irishmen, we sure married up!”
Bells at churches around the nation rang forty times in honor of the nation’s fortieth president, and for three minutes Las Vegas lost its glimmer as casino lights dimmed.
The long, final trip to California ended with a memorable sunset burial service at the Reagan Library. Mrs. Reagan embraced the mahogany casket one more time, pressing her cheek against its cool surface, and whispered a final word. For the first time during a week of mourning, she seemed on the verge of losing her composure, tears welling in her eyes.
Her husband was buried beneath a presidential memorial at the Library. A curved granite wall frames the memorial and is inscribed with Ronald Reagan’s words:
I know in my heart that man is good.
That what is right will always eventually triumph.
And there is purpose and worth to each and every life.