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Hail to the Chief

Schoolchildren, Others Celebrate Reagan's 90th Birthday at Presidential Library

February 07, 2001|JENIFER RAGLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIMI VALLEY — Doris Cotton fell in love with Ronald Reagan outside an Indiana political rally in the late 1970s, when the presidential hopeful stopped to hold her hand and talk about issues that mattered to her.

"Everything he said made sense to me," she said, "and I've been very loyal ever since."

Her loyalty runs so deep, in fact, that she timed a visit to Los Angeles from her hometown of Indianapolis this week to celebrate the 40th president's 90th birthday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum near Simi Valley.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," the 75-year-old Cotton said Tuesday, sitting on a sun-drenched bench in the library's courtyard with her son, Greg, of Duarte. "I'm thrilled about it, but at the same time I'm very sad because he's not here."

Such were the sentiments of hundreds of Reagan fans who flocked to the library for the special occasion. Only two other U.S. presidents have lived to be 90 years old. John Adams and Herbert Hoover each died at the age of 90.

Reagan, who is recovering from hip surgery after a Jan. 12 fall, has not made any public appearances since a videotaped address in 1996, two years after he announced that he had Alzheimer's disease.

The party guests Tuesday included 90 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Simi Valley. The children used crayons and markers to scrawl "Happy Birthday" and "Get Well" messages on a 90-foot-long card that will be on display at the library until Sunday.

"I hope you get better because life would not be the same without you," wrote 9-year-old Jessica Ross.

"You are a good man," another message read.

The students also sang "Happy Birthday" to a small crowd of tourists and television news cameras, along with a special song written by fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Cony Miner to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Miner and fellow teacher Carmen Perez-Brooks said the past few school days have been spent talking about the highlights of Reagan's presidency and about Alzheimer's.

"It's sad because he probably doesn't know we're here celebrating his birthday," 10-year-old Anthony Tercero said.

"We want him to know he's important to us and we love him," added 9-year-old Fariva Sarahang.

Throughout the nation's capital Tuesday, Reagan was honored with accolades by President Bush and members of Congress.

In a statement released by the White House, Bush said, "America knows you came here 20 years ago and changed the world. For all that, your country thanks you, Mr. President. Your country honors you. And your country loves you."

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, convened with a prayer in Reagan's honor led by the House chaplain. Members then passed a resolution extending birthday greetings and best wishes to Reagan on behalf of the American people.

House members offered a flurry of legislation to honor the former president: One bill requested naming a postal facility in Melbourne, Fla., the Ronald W. Reagan Post Office.

And House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced plans to protect Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, Ill., establishing it as a National Historic Site.

Back at the Reagan library, the elementary school students--decked out in red, white and blue outfits--said they wished Reagan was still in office.

"He was the best president we ever had," proclaimed 10-year-old Luis Ramirez. "He served our country wisely."

Although the youngsters couldn't exactly detail Reagan's views on the economy or foreign affairs (he left office before any of them were born), many of the museum's older visitors spoke about what Reagan's legacy means to them.

"I always respected his integrity and humor," said Stan Stenstrom, 66, of La Canada. "He helped the economy with tax cuts and stood up to the Soviet Union."

"That was a time of great patriotism," said 87-year-old Victoria Bogosian, an Armenian immigrant who worked the phones in Van Nuys for Reagan during a previous election campaign. "It will be a loss to America when he's gone."

*

Times staff writer Kathleen Howe in Washington contributed to this story.

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