1. From humble beginnings

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.

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.

Says Neil: "Back when times were hard and somebody would bring up the subject that the rent was due the day after tomorrow, my mother would just say, 'Don't worry about it; the Lord provides.' And He always provided."

These collections add several more strokes to the Reagan portrait. He is a man with a strong faith (bordering on fatalism, some intimates say) that things will work out, and abiding belief that individual neighborliness and bootstrap efforts are the keys to social betterment.

His mother's charity toward ex-prisoners was not a political statement; neither was his father's taking a WPA (Works Progress Administration) job during the Great Depression. At 108 pounds, too small for football

But years later, Ronald Reagan would tell an interviewer (during the 1976 campaign): "I just have faith in the American people that, if through some set of circumstances welfare did disappear tomorrow, no one would miss a meal. The people in this country, in every community all over, would get together, form emergency committes, and take up the slack."

He did not tell the interviewer (Jules Witcover, then of the Washington Post) why that had not been the case during the 1930s or why many Americans continue to miss meals despite social welfare programs.

Life in Dixon, just after World War I, slipped along like the Rock River. The Reagan boys looked out for each other and occasionally joined in pranks, like hauling a manure spreader up onto the school roof. The low point in their father's up-and-down business endeavors came when he was fired one Christmas Eve.

In high school, Ronald Reagan's principal interest was sports, not studying, says his brother. At 5 feet 3 inches and 108 pounds ("with weights in my pockets"), he failed to make the school football team the first year. It was two more years before he became a regular player.

His poor eyesight limited him to head-butting in the line. His more aggressive brother "would do a little nose-twisting and one thing or another in the line, but not him."

During the summer, the younger Reagan held jobs in construction (earning 35 cents an hour for a 60-hour week) and as a life guard at Lowell Park (for $15 a week) along the river. He recalls rescuing 77 people during these summers, even though most of them resented being hauled from the river by the young man everybody called "Dutch."

Neil Reagan recalls another incident that illustrates the influence that the compassionate Reagan parents had on their sons.

During a basketball tournament, the North High School team (on which both boys played) won a sectional meet and had to stay overnight in another town. There was a black boy (Wink McReynolds) on the team, but the one local hotel where the players were to stay did not allow blacks. The Reagan boys took him up the back stairs of the hotel, and the three shared the same bed. Years later , when he was Governor of California, Ronald Reagan visited Mr. McReynolds when the latter was dying.

Having saved his summer earnings, Dutch Reagan headed for the college he had dreamed of for years. It was Eureka College, located about 20 miles from Peoria , Ill. -- "poor and struggling and top-heavy with tradition," as he recalls. His savings were not enough to pay all his college expenses, but the small Disciples of Christ school (about 250 students) gave him a half-scholarship and a dishwashing job to cover the rest.

He majored in economics, but book work apparently was no more his chief concern at Eureka than it was at North High School in Dixon. Still, he compiled an adequate academic record, largely through his photographic memory and ability to speed-read.

"He didn't have to study," says brother Neil, who also attended Eureka. "A professor once said to me: 'I know Ronald doesn't crack a book. But when it comes to tests, he writes a good test -- so what can I do?'"

Later, when Ronald Reagan was rich and famous and his alma mater presented him with an honorary degree, he quipped: "I always figured the first one you gave was honorary."

His penchant for quick (but not thorough) study would serve him well as an actor memorizing lines and as an after-dinner speaker filling out one-liners with not-too-soundly based political observations. But it would also get him into trouble as a candidate and elected official.

He had to work throughout his four years at Eureka, and by his senior year was able to send home $50 a month to help support the family.

"Jack, I'm sure, never knew -- but women are more practical and not bothered by unnecessary pride, so Nelle had written me exactly what the situation was," he recalls in his autobiography.

At Eureka, Ronald Reagan -- the man who would later give the order to send National Guard troops and tear gas-loaded helicopters against protesting students at Berkeley -- also helped lead a successful student strike that brought about the college president's resignation. The issue was drastic academic cutbacks to save money at Eureka, and the students at the small, threadbare school eventually won.

Reagan likes to note that the striking students at Eureka organized enforced study hours while refusing to attend classes, pointing out that the whole matter -- while unprecedented -- was carried out in an orderly and peaceful manner.

This may, in part, explain his later outrage at the rather more upsetting (and in some cases violent) situation on the California campuses when he was governor, even though some would say his own actions and rhetoric were provocative. Likewise, his financial straits while at Eureka also -- not doubt -- helped prompt him to raise scholarships for needy students in California by more than 900 percent.

Young Ron apparently inherited his love of acting from his parents, who organized small-town theater groups. When the cast and crew would gather at the Reagan home for chowder, the boys would sneak down to the landing to watch the fun through the stair railing.

The Tom Mix and William S. Hart westerns at the Family Theater in Dixon where fun, but Ron discovered that he "just liked showing off" in high-school plays directed by English teacher B. J. Fraser. His acting talent developed further with the Eureka drama society. In Northwestern University's annual once-act play contest, Ron and a friend played the Greek shepherd boys who plot against war in Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Aria do Campo."

Eureka just missed winning the contest, but Ronald Reagan won an individual award, and stars were in his eyes. He had kept his "C" average in order to remain eligible for his many extracurricular activities (football, swimming, basketball cheerleader, debating team, president of the student council; he also was active on the school newspaper). He had been the classic letter-sweater "BMOC" (big man on campus) -- the big frog in a small pond. To continue Neil Reagan's metaphor, Tom Sawyer had become Andy Hardy. His father lost his job

The stock market had crashed three years earlier but, as he says, "The only crash Eureka was interested in was that a body against body," which is to say the glories of college football. By the time Ron graduated in 1932, his father had lost his job, his mother had taken a $14-a-week job as a seamstress, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to be elected President of the United States.

The country was in big trouble, and the Depression was intensifying. FDR told the country that "to dole out relief is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." It is this attitude that Ronald Reagan today thinks most fondly of when he remembers his one-time hero, the same President Roosevelt.

Before long both, Jack and Neil were working for the federal govenrment through the WPA. Jack began by handing out food to the needy in Dixon. "Not bums or strangers, but friends," Ronald Reagan remembers -- "fathers of kids I'd gone to school with. Most of them were first names to Jack, and he was Jack to them."

Later, Jack headed up the local branch of the WPA, scrounging jobs and public-works projects for the men clamoring for work. He began to feel uneasy about the bureaucracy that was developing but, recalls his younger son, "being a loyal Democrat, he never criticized the administration or the government."

Neil, fed up with what he perceived as corruption in the patronage machine he had joined in Chicago, quit in disgust. Years later, it would be Neil's experience and attitude that stuck most strongly in his younger brother's mind, not the federal government help that had seen his father through.

But these were still the days of small-town pleasures and possibilities for Ronald Reagan as he graduated from his beloved college. Soon he was hitchhiking to Chicago in search of his first job in the new and exciting business of radio. He had broken out of Dixon and Eureka, but each had left indelible marks on the man who one day would seek the White House.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.