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1. From humble beginnings

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1980

San Francisco

When Ronald Reagan was a youngster in Dixon, Ill., his older brother, Neil, decided to supplement the meager family income by raising, slaughtering, and selling rabbits and pigeons. Young Ron would have nothing to do with it, preferring instead to collect bird eggs in a cast-off store showcase he kept in the barn behind the house.

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This story, which Neil (Moon) Reagan recounts now from his plush and comfortable home on an exclusive golf course in southern California, says three things about the Republican nominee for president:

* He comes from a family that knew depression long before the crash of 1929.

* He has a distinct soft spot for the relatively weak and defenseless.

* He is essentially a loner.

Born Feb. 6, 1911, in the quintessential American small town of Tampico, Ill. , Ronald Reagan knew the joys of a "Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn life" (as his brother describes it) -- the sorrows and frustrations of a boy whose father was less than the ideal provider.

Asked to describe his father, Jack Reagan, Neil says, "You're looking at him. . . . My dad was a typical Irishman. Happy-go-lucky, jolly, very sensitive -- too sensitive for his own good -- too much of the juice.

"But none of us ever shorted him on this," he adds. "He still was our dad. There were a lot of things that he would have liked to have given the family that he couldn't."

The Reagan family bounced around Illinois as Jack moved from one shoe-selling job to the next, finally settling in Dixon. The town, about 90 miles west of Chicago, is split by the Rock River, and the Reagans lived on the south side, the side that Neil recalls "was a little rougher."

In his autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" (borrowed from a line in what was perhaps his best motion picture, "Kings Row"), Ronald Reagan recalls an incident involving his father's "weakness." He came home one evening to find his father passed out on the front porch.

"I felt myself fill with grief for my father at the same time I was feeling sorry for myself," he writes. "I bent over him . . . got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed."

Ronald Reagan was then 11 years old. Today, he drinks only occasionally and says, "Probably, down underneath, I think the world would be better off without it."

Jack, as even young Ron and Neil called him, was an unrepentant Democrat in a small town of Republican shopkeepers and artisans. He raged when coal miners were massacred during a strike. He refused to let his sons see "Birth of a Nation," a now-classic film, because he felt it glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Checking into a small-town hotel one night while on the road as a shoe salesman, Jack was told he would like the place because it didn't allow Jews.

"I'm a Catholic," he told the clerk. "And if it comes to the point where you won't take Jews, you won't take me either."

He slept that night in the car.

If Jack Reagan was a typical Irishman and lapsed Roman Catholic, his wife, Nelle, was a strongly religious Scots-Englishwoman who saw that her boys attended church twice each Sunday, not to mention Sunday school and "Christian Endeavor," as well as Wednesday evening prayer meetings at the Christian Church in Dixon.

She was "a natural practical do-gooder," as her younger son describes her. "My mother probably had more convicted individuals serving time in state penitentiaries in Illinois paroled to her than anyone else in the state," recalls Neil. "Not only paroled to her, but a lot of them would up living at the house."

In describing the family's economic plight, Neil tells about being sent to the butcher with 10 cents for a soup bone and instructions to ask for a piece of calf's liver "for the cat."

"Our big meal for the week was Sunday night -- calf's liver and fried onions, " Neil said in a recent interview. "The rest of the week, my mother would put the soup bone in a big pot, cut up some carrots and potatoes, add water, and we ate the rest of the week from it. She just kept adding water and carrots and potatoes. That was the Reagan depression back in '13, '14, and '15."

Added to her culinary skills, Nelle Reagan's faith helped sustain the family.