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The Deep Hometown Roots of An American President

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President Ronald Reagan never lived in Dixon, Ill., after he grew up, but he always spoke of his hometown with affection and said that it represented what is good in so many American communities.

“Home is where the heart is,” they say. That seems true for even the most famous and well-traveled, no matter how far life may take them.

In 1949, Illinois native Ronald Reagan had been on location in England for several months, working on “The Hasty Heart,” just one of 53 films that marked his Hollywood acting career. Playing the character Yank, a wounded American World War II soldier recovering in a field hospital in Burma, he was supposed to deliver a line: “Everybody has a place to go home to, and for me, that place is Boston.”

Reagan was homesick, and he told the director he wanted to change the line. But it wasn’t Culver, Calif., the actor was thinking of, even though he’d been living on the West Coast for many years by this time.

Watch the film, and you’ll hear where this American son’s heart truly lay: “Everybody has a place to go home to, and for me, that place is a little town on the Rock River, Dixon, Illinois.”

This side yard, where the two brothers used to play football, is now a paved pavilion, with benches and a bronze statue of the former president.

Today, in this riverside community of about 16,000, the restored house which this former United States President always considered his boyhood home attracts more than 13,000 visitors annually. Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (1-4 p.m. Sundays), April through Nov. 15, the house at 816 S. Hennepin Ave. is halfway up a steep hill, on a tree-lined street shaded in spring and summer by old-growth maples and oaks.

The adjacent house has been converted into a visitor center, with exhibits, a gift shop, library and small gallery for viewing a short biographical film about Reagan. From there, visitors head next door for a guided tour of the neat, two-story home where he lived. Inside, Glen Shirley, a retired Illinois State Patrolman, today is the volunteer docent.

Visitors crowd inside the front door as Shirley gives a short introduction. “The house was built in 1891,” he says. “All of the woodwork is original, but the furniture isn’t. Everything is period, but it’s not the Reagans’ furniture.”

Upstairs are three small bedrooms. “That quilt on the bed in the parents’ room was sewn by women who were in Nelle’s Sunday School class,” Shirley says. “The brothers shared a room. Their mother wanted to use this front bedroom for guests and as a sewing room. The rocking chair came from a friend’s home where the boys used to listen to the radio. They didn’t have their own.”

Downstairs is the formal sitting room, with a large picture window and tiled fireplace. “The boys weren’t allowed to play in here,” Shirley says. “But there’s a loose tile in the hearth, where young Ron used to hide pennies. The wallpaper is an actual reproduction, commissioned for the restoration, of the original pattern that was here.”

Greg and Carol Munyon

Next is the family room where Nelle and the boys would read or play games, separated from the small dining room by pocket doors. The final stop is the small kitchen.

Afterward, folks can peek into the horse barn in back; sit a spell on a bench in the tree-shaded pavilion just south of the home, where a statue of Reagan has been erected; head north down Hennepin Avenue – aka The Reagan Way – to see other Reagan landmarks; or, like Greg and Carol Munyon, go back to the visitors center to pick out some souvenirs.

The couple, from Joliet, Ill., first toured the home in the 1980s, shortly after it opened. It’s changed a bit since they were last here. They pose for a photo next to the life-size Reagan cut-out and talk about the former president.

“We voted for him,” Greg says. “He was trustworthy, and he meant what he said.”

“And people liked him, even if they disagreed with him,” adds Carol.

Even though it’s a weekday, the small house is filling up with new visitors. “We average 60 or 70 people a day, seven days a week,” says Connie Lange, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home & Visitors Center. “On a typical Saturday, we get about 80 adults and 36 children. We had 25,000 come through in 2004, the year he passed. To have that kind of traffic, just during the months we’re open, speaks to how well Reagan is remembered.”

Originally from nearby Rock Falls, Ill., Lange worked for years as Director of Membership Services for the Girl Scouts, and also, for a time, for Blackhawk Waterways Convention & Visitors Bureau. She’s been in her current position since 2006, the only paid staff member. The rest of the shop clerks and tour guides are volunteers.

“The experience of being a part of history, and meeting people from all over the world, is amazing,” Lange says. “Almost every visitor I speak with has some personal memory associated with Reagan. One of the most repeated is that the very first time someone voted, it was for him.”

Others have had closer contact. One was the anesthesiologist on duty the day Reagan was shot, and he shared the memory with Lange. The President was going to have surgery, and the anesthesiologist leaned over and asked Reagan if he could ask him something. The President responded with, “Do you want an autograph?” The doctor said “No,” and asked when Reagan had last eaten. The President replied that it had been awhile, and added, “But I’m really not hungry right now.”

Lange laughs out loud as she recalls the tale. “The doctor spent the entire day here,” she says. “He said he was so impressed with how Reagan handled himself during that crisis, that he just had to see the place where he had grown up.”

Connie Lange

Another visitor said he had worked as an intern for Reagan’s speech writer, Peter Robinson, during the time of the President’s visit to the Brandenburg Gate, at the Berlin Wall, the only legal portal between East and West Germany at the time. Reagan, known as “The Great Communicator,” was unlike many presidents, who only tweak their speeches after someone else has written them. Reagan wrote his own, and the speech writers did the tweaking, according to the former intern. When Robinson received Reagan’s version of the speech, he crossed out the line in which Reagan directed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. The intern accompanied Robinson when he returned the speech to the president, and both watched as Reagan wrote the line back in.

“He said Robinson engaged Reagan in a lengthy discussion about why he shouldn’t say it,” says Lange. “They were going to be in Germany, after all, on foreign soil, and they didn’t know the kind of response such a remark could ignite. Robinson had conferred with other advisors who also advised against saying something so inflammatory. Reagan replied that none of that mattered – it was the truth, and it needed to be said. But by the time they left the Oval Office, Robinson thought he had convinced Reagan to omit it.”

Over the next few days, Reagan brought up several times about re-inserting the line, but his advisors remained adamant. The intern was standing next to Robinson in Germany on the day of the speech.

“He told me that on his walk up the steps, Reagan caught Robinson’s eye, and Robinson shook his head ‘No,’” Lange recalls. “Reagan gave a nod and a wink, and the fellow said, ‘We both knew he was going to say it.’”

Mary Weller

The intern told Lange he had been greatly moved by the courage of conviction Reagan demonstrated that day, despite the strenuous opposition he faced, and that’s why he had come to Dixon, to see where Reagan had grown up.

Of course, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is one of the lines for which Reagan is often remembered.

“Many Europeans who visit us credit Reagan with the fall of the wall,” says Lange. “A lot of Europeans who come here actually go out of their way to do so. They fly into O’Hare, take a bus or rent a car, and drive here just to visit Reagan’s home. Then they drive back to O’Hare and go on to their original destinations, which might be Florida or even back to the East Coast.”

Heading north, remnants of the past can be seen elsewhere along the length of Hennepin Avenue: extra-high curbs with metal posts and rings, where folks used to tie up their horses; hunks of round concrete capping obsolete cisterns in backyards; tilted wooden cellar doors that access once-used coal bins. These things punctuate the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches, Great American Dream ideal that characterizes Reagan’s life.

Born in 1911 in Tampico, Ill., Reagan’s childhood years, from age 9 through high school graduation, were spent in Dixon. The family moved to several different rental homes while living in Dixon, but the house on Hennepin is the one the Reagan boys, Ron and older brother Neil (better known in their hometown as Dutch and Moon), remembered best.

The family was very poor; father Jack, an itinerate shoe salesman, was an alcoholic who couldn’t seem to hold onto money or a job. Reagan wrote in his memoirs of walking home one winter night from a basketball game at the YMCA to find Jack (Reagan’s parents insisted that their sons call them by their first names) sprawled in the snow on the front lawn in a drunken stupor. Even so, it was Jack’s staunch Democratic views and fierce opposition to racial and religious intolerance that influenced his son’s early political affiliations. Mother Nelle was a kind, generous, church-going lady, and in later years, Reagan spoke often of helping her to teach Sunday school at the First Christian Church, at 123 Hennepin Ave.

Dixon Historic Center

A few blocks down from his former home, at the corner of Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue, is the Dixon Historic Center. Built in 1908, in Reagan’s day, it was South Central School, where he attended 5th, 6th and 7th grade. Granite floors, wide halls, expansive stairways, high ceilings and ornate woodwork provide a rich backdrop to the history represented here.

“Reagan was very interested in helping to restore his boyhood home and former school,” says Bill Jones, manager and president of the Center. “He asked a personal friend, Norm Wymbs, to help with the process. Wymbs was chairman of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Restoration Foundation for more than 20 years.”

Wymbs, a retired businessman who knew Reagan before he ascended to the White House, served 12 years on the Florida State Republican Committee and was appointed to the Federal Council on Aging during Reagan’s presidency. He has written three books about his friend and former president. He and wife Harriet oversaw the home restoration, which was completed in 1984, during Reagan’s first term, with funds that came from a variety of donors and supporters, both local and non-local. Right around this time, Wymbs took on the restoration of South Central School, purchasing the building and grounds for the district’s asking price of $500.

“Originally, this and the boyhood home both were owned by the Foundation,” Jones explains. “I ran the Reagan home until 1990, when I took over here, after Norm split the sites.”

Dixon, 1950: Actor Reagan and mother Nelle, at the Charles Walgreen family estate.

Extensive repairs, restorations and improvements have been made to the building, including refurbishment of the top-floor gymnasium; reinforcement of the third floor to accommodate a research library; and installation of 255 double-paned windows; a 55-year roof; an elevator and handicap access; and state-of-the-art, computer-managed climate control. The Dixon Historic Center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute and hosts Smithsonian exhibits.

“According to Norm, Reagan wanted this to be the Reagan Presidential Library,” Jones says. “But that wasn’t really very practical, I guess.” With Reagan’s health a growing concern, and his and Nancy’s home in California, traveling cross-country for events and dedications would be too taxing. And so, Simi Valley, Calif., is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

But Reagan loved his old school, and during a visit to Dixon in 1990, while touring the building, he pointed out what had been his sixth-grade classroom.“That visit is documented,” Jones says. “There’s film of Reagan and Wymbs having a game of horse up in the old gym.”

Reagan donated personal Dixon and presidential memorabilia, and Jones and his crew replicated the classroom and established a Reagan History Room on the same floor. The center is supported completely by the Wymbs’ family foundation, and this year’s budget has nothing in it for capital improvements. But Harriet Wymbs passed away last year. “So we’re going to do two rooms in honor of Harriet, somehow,” Jones says.

“Reagan’s visits really helped us to get a lot of details correct,” he continues. “We built a horse barn behind the house that we thought closely resembled the original, with horse stalls and hutches for the rabbits and pigeons he and his brother raised. When Reagan saw the horse stalls, he said there hadn’t been any. And he told me that the hutches were out behind the building, not inside. So that was kind of neat, that we were able to correct some mistakes.”

When the boyhood home was reroofed, the foundation sold cedar shingles for 50 cents apiece, and allowed people to sign and date them. “Of course, we sold more than we needed,” says Jones. “I was cleaning out the garage at the home one day, and I came across a big box of signed, unused shingles. Just for fun, I started going through them, and I found one signed by Moon Reagan [Reagan’s older brother]. So I salvaged that one, and when I came to the historic center, I brought it with me.”

Glen Shirley

It’s on display in the Reagan History Room, along with signed Reagan photos, campaign buttons, movie magazines and more.

“These are some of the jars of jelly beans Reagan would give out to guests when they visited the Oval Office,” Jones points out. Reagan’s inordinate fondness for Jelly Bellies helped to propel sales of the gourmet jelly beans. “But he got in trouble at first, because the Jelly Belly logo was on the jar, like that one. So Reagan had it replaced with the Presidential Seal, like that one next to it, and then it was okay to give away.” A portrait of Reagan, made up of 14,000 Jelly Bellies, greets visitors as they enter the Dixon Historic Center. Reagan said that he could tell a lot about people by the way they ate the jelly beans: Did they pick out just one flavor, or grab a handful?

In the same case is a special coin, presented to the top three Naval officers who serve aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a NIMITZ-class carrier named for the 40th president. Jones brings it out for a closer look. “There aren’t too many of these given out,” he says. “This fellow was a Command Master Chief. Back when I was in the Navy, I made it to Master Chief, but that was as high as I could go. There wasn’t a ‘Command’ Master Chief rank. He sent us his coin after he finished his tour aboard the Reagan. Officers don’t stay on one ship for more than a couple of years, and he won’t be assigned there again. So for him to give this up makes it a really special addition to our collection.”

When the ship was commissioned in 2001, Jones says Nancy sent him two tickets so that he and his wife could attend the dedication ceremony. Jones and other Dixon volunteers were guests, also, at Reagan’s inauguration and the opening of the Reagan Museum in Simi Valley.

A retired IDOT worker, Jones says he first became involved just to have something to do. “But I’ve gotten very interested in history and Reagan’s legacy since I’ve been here,” he says.

Heading further north, at the top of the hill, is the Dixon Public Library, where Reagan the boy borrowed and read books that ultimately influenced Reagan the man. (The day after the family arrived in Dixon, Reagan wrote, both he and Moon were the proud bearers of library cards.) Up one more block, on the corner of First Street, is the First Christian Church where Reagan was baptized.

But take a left on Second Street, and a couple of blocks down, just past the post office, is the Loveland Community House and Museum. Built in 1940, the first floor plays host to a variety of community and group events, from quilters guild and Boy Scout banquets to wedding showers and art shows. On the top floor is the Loveland Museum, with exhibits chronicling the history of Dixon and Lee County. One room now showcases Dixon’s favorite son. Former Dixon Telegraph and Register Star reporter Fran Swarbrick has been curator here for 15 years, and she met Reagan three times in the course of her journalistic career.

On display at the Visitors Center is the Kodak camera used by Elizabeth “Bee” Frey to take many photos of school chums, including the famous lifeguard picture of Bee’s close friend, Dutch.

“He was a kind, polite man,” she says. “He always treated the press with respect. One time at the Rockford Airport, I was trying to ask him a question and get his photo, and his guards were hustling him into the car. Well, he just pushed them out of the way and let me ask my question and get pictures. Before he left, he asked, ‘Did you get what you needed?’ Not many politicians, especially not the president, are that considerate.”

On display at the Loveland Museum is the well-known photo of Reagan, at Dixon’s Lowell Park, where he worked as a lifeguard. A plaque, presented to Reagan by the Dixon Park District, is mounted beneath it, crediting him with pulling 77 people from the Rock River during his seven years on duty.

“Reagan supposedly carved a notch in a certain log whenever he saved someone,” Swarbrick says. “But it floated off down the river after a big storm, so it’s gone. There’s one cute story that Reagan saved the same woman five different times, and on the last occasion, he told her, ‘Lady, you need swimming lessons!’ And then, of course, he taught her how to swim. Reagan had the plaque for several years, but finally sent it back and said that it belonged in Dixon. It was hanging at the concession stand at Lowell Park, but we keep it here now.”

There’s a worn copy of That Printer from Udell, about a young boy dealing with an alcoholic father, a book read by 11-year-old Dutch which he said changed his life. Former Reagan neighbor Eugene Lebre donated about a dozen autographed photos sent to him by Reagan over the years. And the collection continues to grow.

Swarbrick, in her 80s, works three days a week in the museum, and she can speak at length about every piece there. In the Reagan room, she removes a photo of Nelle and Dutch from a locked case.

“Nelle put up with a lot, having an alcoholic husband, but they say she never talked badly of him to their sons,” Swarbrick says.

Reagan moved Nelle and Jack out to Hollywood in 1939, after signing a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Jack died of pneumonia in 1941. That same year, Dutch and Nelle returned to Dixon for “Louella Parsons Day.”

Parsons, who also attended Dixon High School, had become a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. She arranged for a red carpet Hollywood premiere of Dutch’s latest film, “International Squadron,” at the Dixon Theatre. Among other film stars attending were comedians Joe E. Brown, Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna.

Mother and son visited again in 1950, bringing more Hollywood friends, and all stayed at Hazelwood, the riverfront estate of the Charles Walgreen family. (The founder of the famous drugstore chain lived in Dixon for a time, and in fact, had his first job there, at Horton’s Pharmacy, at age 16.) Nelle stayed for three weeks after Ron and the rest returned to California, to visit with old friends. She never seemed influenced by the glamour of the West Coast, and like her son, remained strongly attached to her former home.

Reagan often recalled his years in Dixon as the happiest of his life, calling it a Tom Sawyer-like existence. He kept in touch with neighbors, teachers, classmates, stayed connected to his roots, even after finding fame and success, even after achieving the highest political office in the country. And he returned often.

One of those visits was in 1984, upon the occasion of his 73rd birthday, to attend a party thrown by the town in his honor. On the cusp between the two terms he served as President, Reagan, along with Nancy and Neil, came also to tour the newly renovated home where he had grown up. Speaking at the high school, Reagan recalled his experience filming “The Hasty Heart,” and reminisced about his years in Dixon, and despite the hardships of his youth, his memories were all fond ones.

The trio then toured the neat, two-story home, and the brothers commented that it seemed smaller than they remembered. In the sitting room, Reagan expressed disappointment, because the loose tile on the fireplace hearth had been left ajar on purpose.

“Aw, I wanted to see if I could find it myself,” he told his tour guides. He then took four pennies out of his pocket, put them in the space and replaced the tile (pictured below). The White House chef cooked dinner for them in the tiny kitchen, on the antique gas stove, and the three ate in the dining room.
There are those who wonder at Reagan’s idyllic love of this Midwestern city. One such person arrived last May at 816 S. Hennepin, and Lange recognized him immediately.

Guests to the Oval Office came away with Reagan’s favorite candy, Jelly Bellies, in jars etched with the Presidential seal and his signature. Visible in the background (center) is a special coin donated by a Naval officer who received it for his service aboard the USS Reagan aircraft carrier.

“It was Ron Prescott Reagan, Ron and Nancy’s son,” she recalls with excitement. “He’s writing a book about his father, and he said, ‘I never understood why Dad called Dixon home. So I thought, in the interest of accuracy, I should check it out.’ He was just leaving when a school group arrived, and he got stuck holding the door for all of the children. The last little boy asked who he was. Ron told him his name, and the little boy said, ‘No you’re not! He’s dead!’ The book is due out this year, in the first part of October, and we’ve invited him to come for a book signing, but we haven’t heard anything yet.”

Others know exactly why, no matter where life took him, Reagan clung to his Dixon roots, like tour guide Shirley. New to the job, he says that besides being a history buff, he enjoys finding ways to give back.

“I’ve lived in Dixon for 17 years, and it’s a great town, with good people,” he says. “My wife teaches over here at St. Mary’s School [visible from the Reagan home]. I was helping out with the kindergarten class, and someone suggested I see if they needed help over here. I’m happy to do it. It’s important to give back to your community.”

Gift shop volunteer Mary Weller, who works three times a month, is a retired nursing instructor from Sauk Valley Junior College, where she had Bill Jones’ wife as a student. On this day, she discovers that she quilts with the sister of another visitor who’s a former Dixon resident, and the two chat for a few minutes.

It’s that kind of spirit that transforms a city into a hometown – a place where people know each other, where they give of themselves, where growth and progress are pursued but history is preserved. It is that spirit that forever tied Ronald Reagan to this unassuming, but typically American, Midwestern city.

“What I remember most clearly is that Dixon held together,” Reagan told the gymnasium of Dixonites back in 1984. “Our faith was our strength. Our teachers pointed to the future. People held onto their hopes and dreams. Neighbors helped neighbors.

“Dixon has changed a lot since then. But in many ways, it hasn’t changed at all…. What I’m really referring to are the values and traditions that made America great….

“If anyone wants to know what community means, and what it’s all about, come to Lee County, to Dixon, Ill.” ❚

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