“Everything that has been good in my life began here.” That’s what Ronald Reagan said of Eureka College, his alma matter, in a commencement address there in 1982. It was often repeated last Friday at the Reagan Centennial year’s first academic conference, also held at this small liberal arts college in northwestern Illinois.
Eureka is a remarkable college. Now 157 years old, it was founded by abolitionists of the Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ) who held strong views about equality. It was the first college in Illinois and only the third in the nation to admit both men and women on an equal footing. To this day, it maintains an association with the church, but as its literature notes, welcomes students of all faiths.
Several times — including Ronald Reagan’s undergraduate years — the college has been on the brink of insolvency, but was always pulled out by its loyal alumni and friends. Under the presidency of J. David Arnold, over the last six years the college has put itself on a sound financial footing and has grown to nearly 800 students (it was 230 when Reagan was there). The enthusiasm of students for their college is palpable and they are fascinated by the accomplishments of their most famous alumnus.
As part of the Reagan Centennial there will be five or six more academic conferences around the country this year. These will tend to deal with “cosmic” issues of national and international focus. This one focused on the 40th president’s roots, all of which were in rural northwestern Illinois. Other than a few months in Chicago when he was very young, all of Ronald Reagan’s childhood and youth were spent in small communities in this region: Tampico, Monmouth, Galesburg, Dixon, Eureka.
The characteristics associated with him — self-confidence, self-reliance, optimism, modesty,
loyalty, tolerance, good humor, determination and reverence for God–came from his forebears, his parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, the circumstances of his youth and the environment of the rural Middle West. The conferees examined this connection. As Dr. Andrew Cayton of Miami University of Ohio put it, “The key to community (in those days) was consensus, through talking with others; to persuade through example.”
Seven of the conferees were from academia, all from Midwestern colleges and universities.
The Weekly Standard‘s Fred Barnes was a moderator and there were six “old Reagan hands”:
Edwin Meese, who served as chief of staff to Reagan when he was Governor of California, then as Counselor to the President and U.S. Attorney General; Craig Shirley, author of two seminal books, one each on Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns; Martin and Annelise Anderson of the Hoover Institution, both of whom served in the Reagan White House and are co-authors of Reagan in His Own Hand, Reagan: A Life in Letters and Reagan’s Secret War, and this writer who is currently working on a book titled “Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character.”
While the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library houses his presidential and gubernatorial papers and much else having to do with his public career, President Arnold and his Eureka College colleagues see the school as being a potential magnet for Reagan scholars who want to examine his beginnings and the context of his growing-up years. Toward that end, a climax of the conference was the announcement that a New York businessman, Mark Shenkman, and his wife, Rosalind, are making a gift of an expanded and upgraded archives section — to be the Ronald Reagan Research Center — in the college’s library. Added to the unit will be a special reading room for scholars that will contain a copy of each of the several hundred books already written about Reagan.