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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Throngs of Mourners Recall a Common Touch

People from many different walks of life pay their last respects to a man who they say spoke plainly and inspired them.

June 08, 2004|Holly J. Wolcott, Joe Mathews and Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

Fred and Luella May were at the head of the somber procession, the first of thousands of everyday folks to wend their way around the flag-shrouded casket of Ronald Reagan on Monday as the 40th president lay in repose at the Simi Valley library that bears his name.

The couple from rural Riverside County seemed well-suited to lead the public mourning of a man who rose out of rural Midwestern poverty to preside over the end of the Cold War, who chopped wood in a cowboy hat and boots at his Santa Barbara ranch as he weighed decisions that fundamentally changed the world.

A retired truck driver in his own black cowboy hat and boots, Fred May, 57, was among the millions of former Democrats who were so inspired by the plain-talking Reagan that they voted for the Republican in 1980. Luella May, 53, a homemaker, cares for her ailing mother and helps tend the family goats, as Reagan tended his horses.

"He was telling us that there was always room for one more American hero," Fred May said before the couple boarded a bus that would take them to the viewing. "And I believed him."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Ukraine's status -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about the people in line to view Ronald Reagan's casket at his presidential library near Simi Valley stated that Ukraine was a Soviet satellite when Reagan was president. It was a republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

"I thought that in his death he had even done something great," Luella May said after they returned. "Once you walked in, there was very little noise, and you could feel the reverence for this man."

In death, Reagan lured mourners from nearly every corner of the culture, the way he had drawn constituents in his political life.

"I know I've called this Reagan country, but if you go over and stand in line, you'll find people from all over the country coming to visit because of the love and respect they have for Ronald Reagan," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who had been given a private viewing early in the day.

Side by side in line, Republicans and Democrats wiped away tears. Recent immigrants from Ukraine -- not a nation but a Soviet satellite when Reagan was president -- stood along with former U.S. soldiers who had trained for war with the Soviets, as well as thousands of others who spent much of their lives wondering if a nuclear conflict between the Cold War foes would bring about the end of humankind.

"I'll never forget he helped end the Cold War," said Wilma Bennett, 64, a Libertarian from Reseda. "It was like a sword of Damocles hanging over us. If not for Reagan, it would still be there."

The Mays, along with mourners from as far as New York and Florida, began gathering in parking lots at Moorpark College in the early morning. Some brought chairs and umbrellas, cold sandwiches and warm sodas, which proved useful as the line of mourners waiting under slate-gray skies stretched to half a mile by midday.

As they waited, some remembered Reagan's call in Berlin to then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall." Others marveled at his ability to woo socially conservative Democrats, now widely known as "Reagan Democrats," and his ability to distill the countless ingredients of bureaucracy to simple terms that led to him being dubbed the "Great Communicator."

"Whether you were a Democrat or Republican, he talked to you," said Kevin Humphries, 36.

Reagan had spoken so clearly to Humphries that soon after hearing the news Saturday, he and his wife, Jamie, loaded their four children -- including an 8-year-old daughter to whom they gave the middle name Reagan -- and drove eight hours from Phoenix to the library.

There was little talk of the various controversies of the Reagan administrations, his faith in trickle-down economics, for example, and an anti-communism so virulent it led to deep and divisive U.S. involvement in some Central American wars and the Iran-Contra scandal. When mourners did raise such topics, some argued that Reagan, in the end, was right.

Jo-ana D'Balcazar, a 43-year-old native of Nicaragua -- whose Contra rebels were supported by Reagan -- said, "Reagan understood freedom and the importance of fighting communism."

Others openly disagreed with some, or nearly all, of Reagan's policies.

But he was the president, they said, and thus deserved solemn remembrance.

"I'm not really here out of respect for his politics," said Julie Boles, 26, a resident in gynecology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. "I'm here out of respect for the institution."

The Mays, who live on a two-acre ranch they seldom leave except to teach Bible classes to children with learning disabilities at their Baptist church, were never as interested in Reagan's specific policies as they were taken by his boundless and contagious optimism and his unyielding conviction in the innate goodness not only of America but of Americans.

Luella May is a lifelong Republican who never considered voting for a Democrat. Fred May, however, was convinced to switch to the Republican Party in 1980 after hearing Reagan eulogize movie actor John Wayne in a preelection speech.

And so, like many others, they made an hours-long trek, and waited hours more.

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