Ronald Reagan is a Californian. That’s what the world thinks, but he is actually from Illinois. Specifically, the northwestern section of that state. Not only was he born there, but all of his childhood, teenage years and his early adulthood were lived in small towns in this land of deep rich soil where agriculture mixes with some manufacturing to form a distinct Midwestern way of life.
Last year, Congress passed a resolution making 2011 the Reagan Centennial Year. It created a national centennial commission and encouraged the states to do the same. Some did, some didn’t. California did, but Illinois, determined to fight to assert its claim to Reagan, did it in spades.
No wonder. Tampico, Dixon, Eureka, Monmouth, Galesburg, Fulton and several other communities all figured in Reagan’s life and the shaping of his character and they wanted their day in the sun.
Many people forgot about Reagan’s Midwestern roots (if they ever knew about them), but he didn’t. From his film days on through and after his presidency, he returned many times, speaking at his alma mater, riding horses in parades, cutting ribbons for new buildings and taking part in other ceremonies. He also carried on a steady correspondence with classmates and friends from his youth.
Travel to Reagan’s Illinois, as I did last week, and you will see the evidence along what today is called the Ronald Reagan Trail (encompassing all of the towns mentioned). It began in January with an academic conference on Reagan and the Midwest at his alma mater, Eureka College. That month there were three events in Fulton, where his parents met and were married; a Nelle Reagan Program at the town museum honoring the late president’s mother; a “Reagan’s Roots in ‘Dutch’ Soil” program there and “Hat’s Off to Reagan,” during February in which Fulton merchants displayed vintage hats and photos of same in their windows (two of Reagan’s great aunts operated a hat shop in the town).
The actual 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth was February 6. Around it were a celebration at the Dixon Historic Center (once Reagan’s elementary school), a dinner dance, a Main Street celebration in Tampico (Reagan’s birthplace), “Taft and Reagan,” a lecture in Fulton by a historian who reviewed the life of the man who was president when Reagan was born, and a “Reagan of Illinois” concert by a large orchestra and chorus in Dixon.
In March, the Lee County Irish Heritage Society put on a concert of Celtic/Irish music and Dixon held the Reagan Centennial Dance. In May, Fulton’s Historical Society led “A Walk in the Cemetery” to visit the graves of Reagan’s four grandparents and two of his aunts.
This week, Dixon will stage the 47th Annual Petunia Festival, dedicated this year to the memory of the 40th president. Vice Chairman of the Illinois Reagan Centennial Commission, Ann Lewis, is the grand marshal and promises a week-long festival with a parade, fireworks, pancake breakfast in the park and live music. Reagan Centennial banners and posters seem to be everywhere.
Next week is “Jazz from Reagan’s Lifetime,” an outdoor concert in Sterling. In August, September, and October are “An Evening in the President’s Shadow,” a wine-and-food tasting on the grounds of the fully-restored Reagan boyhood home in Dixon; a “Dutch” ice cream social at Heritage Square in Dixon; and “On the Path to the Presidency Gala,” a gourmet dinner-dance with guests dressed in 1940s attire.
What do all these towns get from all this activity? Civic pride, which is important, but more importantly, greater recognition than before of the central role the people and places of this part of Illinois played in the shaping of Reagan’s character. In the summer of 1932, just out of Eureka College, he crossed to the other side of the Mississippi River to get his first job at a radio station in Davenport, Iowa. By then, the main elements of his character were fully formed: loyalty, self-reliance, self-confidence, determination, modesty, good humor, tolerance, reverence for God. Where did he get them? From his parents and other elders in his life, teachers, coaches, sports idols, friends, clergy — and all of them were in northwestern Illinois.
(Mr. Hannaford’s sixth book about Ronald Reagan, “Reagan’s Roots,” is due to be published later this year.)