Illinois' Reagan country celebrates centennial
DIXON, Ill. (AP) -- As Bill Jones remembers it, Ronald Reagan lost badly.
During an early 1990s visit to the old school in Dixon where the former president attended classes for three years, Reagan and friend Norm Wymbs played a game of HORSE in the second-floor gym. Reagan couldn't make a shot, said Jones, who directs the museum that now occupies the building,
Beaten, the 80-something former president headed for the door, then turned back onto the polished maple basketball court.
"He said, 'Give me that ball,' and he walked right about here," Jones said, pointing to one of the free throw lines, "and he put it up."
One shot, one last chance, and -- swish -- one basket made. A cheery determination that was vintage Reagan.
Reagan lore comes easy in the northern and central Illinois towns where he was born (Tampico), grew up (Dixon, Monmouth) and attended college (Eureka). They are places where Sunday's centennial of his 1911 birth is being marked with speeches, parties, plays and concerts in a show of pride so deep that residents bristle over which town gets the most credit for the man they all call Dutch.
One of the area's most noted birthday bashes comes Friday night just outside Tampico with a dinner featuring a keynote speech by former House speaker and potential presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
Some Reagan stories are well known, such as the one about how he saved 77 people while working as a lifeguard on the Rock River.
Others illustrate what his fans and defenders might call typical Reagan, the mix of determination and optimism that led him to Hollywood, California's governor's mansion and the White House, ultimately making him an icon for conservatives.
The region where Reagan grew up -- defined by the towns where his salesman father, Jack Reagan, could land a job -- gave him a sense of what Reagan biographer Lou Cannon calls rootedness, while his mother, Nelle Reagan, saw to it that he viewed his glass as at least half full.
"Even the experience that was the most searing in his boyhood, which was his father's drinking, it was almost relentlessly positive what she was saying to him," said Cannon, who has written five books on Reagan and covered him as White House correspondent for the Washington Post. "'It's a sickness, don't blame your father.'"
And although its flat land and gray winters seldom generate much optimism, the area was on Reagan's mind even as he was about to be elected president in 1980. Cannon saw it firsthand on election night.
"I'll bet they're having a hot time in the old town tonight," Cannon recalls Reagan telling his brother, Neil.
Around Dixon, a town of 13,500 people, most of the stories you'll hear are like Jones' -- high points and illustrations of Reagan's determination.
Many people remember the white cowboy hats worn by Dixonites who went to Reagan's January 1981 inauguration. One sits in Jones' museum, along with cowboy movie posters and familiar photos and paintings of Reagan with the radio microphone that was his ticket out of town.
Even some who didn't vote for Reagan have mementos. Jane Melvin owns an autographed photo Hollywood publicity photo that belonged to her father-in-law.
"I think (Reagan) was one of those people who could meet people and make them feel special," she said in her home just across Hennepin Avenue -- labeled Reagan Way by the city -- from the official Reagan Boyhood Home.
Tampico, a city of 800 people, has its own stories -- and a photograph to prove one of them.
A grainy, color snapshot, it shows a rainbow curving right down onto the top of the two-story downtown building where Reagan was born. The photo, Joan Johnson said, was taken the day before Reagan's election in 1980.
A copy is displayed prominently in the small, packed museum Johnson curates along with the adjacent second-story apartment that marks Reagan's birthplace.
The apartment isn't full of Reagan family heirlooms, but rather, furniture, wallpaper and other pieces from the era. By the standards of the day, it doesn't indicate deep poverty.
But it's nothing fancy.
"Reagan came from the most modest background of any 20th century American president -- his family never owned their home," said Robert G. Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California who is working on a Reagan biography. "If you go to the home in Tampico, you're struck even by the standards of time, just how modest it all was."
Not even everyone in town is a fan of its most famous son, Johnson said.
"I think (some) people here in town are like, 'What's so great about him?' Or, 'Well my grandma knew him and he wasn't so great.' Maybe jealousy," Johnson said.
Dixon and Tampico, which sit about 35 miles apart, share Reagan, but they don't always do it willingly. There have been disagreements over whose claim is strongest, and which town can claim to be the real capital of Illinois' Reagan country.
"That's true," Bill Jones said. "They would get upset that Ronald Reagan, when he'd come down (to Illinois), he wouldn't go down there," Jones said of Tampico.
But Johnson reminds visitors that, no matter what, it all started here.
"All I can say is," she said, smiling and laughing, "there's only one place where he was born."