Where did Ronald Reagan’s character come from? The short answer, according to author Peter Hannaford, is rural Illinois.
Hannaford spoke last week at The Heritage Foundation in the final event of Heritage’s series celebrating the centennial of the fortieth President’s birth.
Drawing on his new book, Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places that Shaped His Character, Hannaford pointed out that Reagan’s great-grandparents settled in rural Illinois. With the exception of a few months in Chicago, Reagan grew up in these small Midwestern towns–the places where his character was shaped.
His parents, Jack and Nelle Reagan, inculcated in their son the values of hard work and thrift, Hannaford said. And with his father’s good humor and his mother’s religious beliefs, Reagan grew up in a home “totally free of envy and prejudice,” added Hannaford, a former Reagan adviser.
From his mother Reagan received his religious devotion, becoming a Sunday school teacher while still a teenager. Nelle, a dedicated churchwoman, also dramatized Bible stories, which the young Reagan helped perform. Hannaford said he believes these plays whetted Reagan’s appetite for the stage and his future acting career.
While in high school, Reagan served as a lifeguard, saving seventy-seven lives over seven summers. To Hannaford, this summer job was symbolic of “something of a foretaste of [Reagan’s] role in public life, which was standing ready to save a nation from drowning in a sea of domestic or foreign troubles.”
The final formative years for Reagan were spent at Eureka College. It was at Eureka, Hannaford remarked, that Reagan gave his first political speech. As a freshman, Reagan was chosen to speak on behalf of the student body, announcing a strike on classes until the college president, who supported highly unpopular policies, resigned. According to Hannaford, Regan later said that while giving that speech, he first realized the connection one could make with an audience.
After graduating from Eureka, Reagan received a job as a full-time radio announcer. The formative years of his life were behind him, and his character was fully established, cultivated by his solid Midwestern roots.
And, as Hannaford noted, “the rest is history.”