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Ronald Reagan

Tampico, a very small town in northern Illinois, is the site of Ronald Reagan's birth on February 6, 1911. He was the second son of Jack and Nelle Reagan. His parents' five-room apartment had neither running water nor an indoor toilet. The family moved often during Ronald Reagan's first nine years, as his father searched for a better job and a nicer place to live. In 1920, the Reagans finally settled down in Dixon, a town of more than 10,000 people, not far from Tampico. Ronald Reagan formed a life-long love of Dixon, the community that cultivated his character. Many years later, he said, "All of us have to have a place we go back to. Dixon is that place for me. There was the life that has shaped my body and mind for all the years to come."

reagan with mother

How did Ronald Reagan's mother contribute to the development of the future president's character?


ronald reagan life guard

What personality traits did Ronald Reagan develop during his years in Dixon, Illinois?

In Dixon, Ronald Reagan's mother encouraged him to participate with her in a local church group that staged readings and plays. His shyness passed away as he discovered a natural talent for public speaking and acting. Nelle Reagan also transmitted to her son the moral standards that shaped his character and guided his decisions. On Mother's Day in 1985 Ronald Reagan fondly recalled his mother: "She was truly a remarkable woman–ever so strong in her determination, yet always tender, always giving of herself to others. She never found time in her life to complain; she was too busy living those values she sought to impart in my brother and myself. She was the greatest influence on my life."

Ronald Reagan's personality blossomed during four years at Dixon High School from 1924 to 1928. He was a varsity football player and captain of the swim team. He developed his ability in acting by participating in student plays directed by a masterful English teacher, B.J. Frazier. He showed political leadership by becoming president of the student council.

From 1926 to 1932, Ronald Reagan worked during the summer as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, near Dixon. He was an extraordinary lifesaver, demonstrating traits of courage, self-sacrifice, and compassion. He remembered: "One of the proudest statistics of my life is seventy-seven–the number of people I saved during those seven summers." After graduating from high school, Ronald Reagan enrolled in Eureka College, about one hundred miles southeast of Dixon. He majored in economics and sociology and performed in more than a dozen plays staged by the theater and drama department. He was an athlete, earning varsity letters in football, track, and swimming. He also was a student leader, winning an election to become president of the student body. Among his many interests, Ronald Reagan enjoyed acting most of all and hoped someday to have a career in the movies.

Upon graduation from Eureka College in the spring of 1932, Ronald Reagan worked in the summer as a lifeguard for the last time. In the fall, he found employment in radio, working successfully for five years as a sports broadcaster. But he never gave up his dream of becoming a movie star. In the spring of 1937, while visiting southern California, Ronald Reagan went to Hollywood. He took a screen test at the Warner Brothers movie studio, won a contract, and launched a movie-acting career that lasted until 1964.

One of Ronald Reagan's most memorable movies was Knute Rockne All American, about football at the University of Notre Dame. He acted the part of Coach Rockne's star player, George Gipp, who tragically died of pneumonia soon after his final football season. Ronald Reagan's portrayal of Gipp brought him the nickname that lasted the rest of his life: "The Gipper."

America's entry into World War II interrupted Ronald Reagan's career in Hollywood. A captain in the United States Army Air Corps, he was assigned the task of producing training films to prepare soldiers for combat. After the war, Ronald Reagan returned to acting in the movies.

In the 1950s, Ronald Reagan turned to television. From 1954 to 1962 he was the host of General Electric Theater, a weekly program with a national audience. Later, he appeared in Death Valley Days, a dramatic series about the western frontier in American history. He also became intensely interested in politics, accepting many invitations to make speeches about political issues and policies.

Ronald Reagan's turn to political activity had begun several years earlier, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1947 to 1952. He served a final term as SAG president from 1959 to 1960. The Hollywood community during those years was filled with political controversy caused by the worldwide conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was called the Cold War because the opponents rarely directly engaged in battle. Ronald Reagan was concerned that some people involved in moviemaking sympathized with the Soviet Union's goal of spreading its communist system of government throughout the world, which the United States opposed. He feared that lofty Soviet claims about government-controlled advancement of social justice "had fooled some otherwise loyal Americans into believing that the Communist Party sought to make a better world."

As president of SAG, Ronald Reagan opposed what he saw as communist influence among the moviemakers. He pointed out that Soviet communism was a totalitarian system in which individual liberty was totally denied and dissent was brutally crushed. He explained, "On the one hand is our belief that the people can and will decide what is best for themselves, and on the other (communist, Nazi, or fascist) side is the belief that a 'few' can best decide what is good for all the rest."




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