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FAREWELL TO A PRESIDENT

Patient and Solemn, 105,000 Pay Their Respects

Sen. Kerry is among the visitors who viewed Reagan's casket at his library near Simi Valley.

June 09, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The admirers just kept coming.

By night's end Tuesday, more than 105,000 had trooped solemnly by Ronald Reagan's flag-draped casket at his presidential library near Simi Valley.

Most were ferried by bus from nearby Moorpark College, where they waited in line for as long as seven hours.

While plans for the viewing were years in the making, nobody anticipated a crush of visitors so overwhelming that even before dawn on Tuesday, traffic was halted for hours on the Ronald Reagan Freeway.

At the Reagan home in Bel-Air, where the former president died Saturday at age 93, Nancy Reagan said she was stunned by the turnout, said Joanne Drake, chief of staff at Reagan's office.

"It is unbelievable what I am seeing on TV," Drake quoted the former first lady as saying. "The outpouring of love for my husband is incredible."

So many visitors kept streaming to the presidential library that officials delayed the end of viewing hours from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.

On Tuesday afternoon, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, paid his respects with a moment of silence beside the casket. He made the sign of the cross and bowed his head.

Kerry was in Los Angeles for his daughter's graduation from the American Film Institute. Both he and President Bush will attend the late president's funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Friday. After the services, the body will be returned to the library grounds for burial.

While Kerry's entourage glided up the hill in a motorcade, a seemingly endless caravan of buses hauled parents with their young children, elderly people with canes and wheelchairs, old soldiers bidding farewell to their former commander in chief, legions of people who fondly recalled the 40th president's wide-open face and sunny wit.

"I feel blessed to be here," said Shirley Venus Wake, a 51-year-old Pasadena secretary. "I became a Republican because of him. Everything was just great then."

Even critics of Reagan's administration were moved by what they saw at his library.

"I spent a decade blaming him for things because I'm a union person," said Jeanne Edwards, a Thousand Oaks mother who was persuaded to visit by her 18-year-old daughter, Kira. "I knew at the time I didn't like his policies, but you couldn't not like him as a person."

The tide of well-wishers swelled Monday night and Tuesday morning. From the hilltop library, visitors gazing across the valley could see a chain of red lights as motorists inched along. Before dawn on Tuesday, a few frustrated drivers left their cars on the freeway shoulder and trudged miles to Moorpark College, where they would wait some more.

At the library turnoff on Olsen Road, police officers staffed a checkpoint beside a makeshift shrine. An electric highway sign read: "Road Closed. Flower Drop Only."

Moments after viewing Reagan's casket, Andrea Mejia said she was exhausted.

"I loved him," the Sunland woman said. "I prayed for him. If it was hours ago, I would have cried. But it's 3 a.m. and we stood in line for seven hours. We're physically and emotionally drained."

Her daughter, graduate student Jacobi Lynn Mejia, said she was mentally preserving "every detail, every image." That way, she could pass a piece of history to her family's next generation -- just like her great-great-aunt who told of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train passing slowly through her small Ohio town.

For many, their hours in Ventura County carried a similar weight.

A few older men wore suits and a few women wore dresses, but most of the visitors looked as informal as any group of Californians on a day off. As they slowly filed past the casket on its rectangle of blue carpet, they were silent. Here, a woman brushed away a tear; there, a gray-haired man drew himself up and offered a crisp military salute.

Six members of a military honor guard stood at attention beside the bier, their eyes never flickering. They were a stately grace note to memories of Reagan as a down-home hero.

"He was just so human," said Linda Martins, a mortgage company employee from Simi Valley. "He was never afraid to show his feelings. You knew just where he stood."

Toting a sketch pad, Martins had passed the time during her long wait by drawing a rose, an angel, an eagle.

"I wish I could have drawn a horse and left it on his casket," she said. "How else would a cowboy ride off with God?"

Some of the visitors praised Reagan for specific accomplishments while he was in office.

Wei Chao, a physician from Hong Kong, said he wanted to pay his respects to the president who had signed the joint communique of Aug. 17, 1982 -- a pact in which the United States agreed to limit arms sales to Taiwan.

"That took wisdom and courage," he said. "We are in the presence of greatness."

Marvin Amaya of North Hollywood said he was paying tribute to Reagan "on behalf of my family."

"The amnesty law he signed in 1986 allowed me to adjust my immigration status and attend college," said Amaya, who originally is from El Salvador.

Many couples endured the lengthy wait to offer their children the memory of a lifetime.

Simi Valley resident Chris Cook and his wife Tracy brought their 9-year-old son, Daniel.

Tracy said the family's Christmas card in 2001 was a shot of them in front of the chunk of the Berlin Wall that is the centerpiece of the library grounds. When they sent out that card, they decided they would bring Daniel with them to Reagan's viewing when the time came.

"We wanted to be a part of it," Tracy said. "We figured this is more a day of education than he'd ever get in a day of school."

Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias, Matea Gold, Gregory W. Griggs and Regine Labossiere contributed to this report.

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