The nation is experiencing the loss of perhaps one of our greatest presidents. I consider this also a deeply personal loss.
Many years ago, before becoming the governor of California, Ronald Reagan owned a ranch called Yearling Row in Agoura, near Malibu Lake. At the time, being a bored, as well as dumb, kid (Agoura, at the time, was considered a slum), I swiped some candy from the little store at Whizens Cornell Corners. My punishment was to go out to pull weeds at Mr. Reagan's ranch, in order to satisfy my debt (at 50 cents per hour). After a couple of days of this miserable work, Ray Palmer, Reagan's foreman, told me to get to work harder because the owner was coming (not that I really cared).
The next day, Mr. Reagan appeared and I overheard him make a remark to Ray saying how nice the place looked. Mr. Palmer told Mr. Reagan to thank me. Well, Mr. Reagan walked over to me and we had quite the long talk -- the end of the story being a handshake as well as a thank you for my work, but at the same time I was told, in no uncertain terms, that from that point forward I was to walk a straight line. After a few moments he turned to me and said, "Try to help people, son, and above all never hurt anyone."
I saw the man only a couple of times after that, but looking back, I can truly say that I have never been more impressed than with the integrity and dignity that he showed to me that day. I, along with the rest of the world, will truly miss him.
Ronald Reagan started his public election career as an elected director of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District in 1961 (now known as the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains). His devotion to ranching, land management and horse-raising continued with him for years. His leadership from the local level to the state level to the national level has inspired numerous other public servants to serve in public-interest roles all across the country. It's a tremendous legacy.
I have a vivid memory of our late 40th president, embedded in the back of my head. One May afternoon in 1969, I was a senior at UC Berkeley, walking down Telegraph Avenue on my way to class. There was tear gas around from that day's People's Park demonstration, but that was common that year.
My girlfriend and I were tired of demonstrations by then and stopped to ask some fellow students what was going on. Nearby members of the California Highway Patrol saw that we were part of an assembly and opened fire with shotguns, wounding both of us with birdshot as we ran. There are still pellets in my head from that day.
We neither threatened nor moved toward the officers. I have always felt that the atmosphere of confrontation in those days was a two-way street -- provoked by students and others troubled by Vietnam and by cops and soldiers egged on by politicians eager to look self-righteous and "tough." Then-Gov. Reagan was one of the main instigators on the other side. He had a charming smile in 1969, too.
As the publisher of several magazines in the RV industry, as well as sponsor of the Good Sam Club, an organization of travel-trailer, camper and motor-home owners, I was privileged to receive an invitation to a state dinner at the White House some years ago. Certainly the undisputed highlight of this memorable event was the unexpected opportunity to catch the president after dinner, alone, in the Rose Garden. Introducing my wife and myself, I asked if it would be possible to get a photograph of us for publication in our magazine.
"It's already happening," said the handsome, smiling president as we shook hands while his personal photographer stood by with her camera flashing. The punch line is that my wife got in her two cents by adding, "We're from your favorite state, California." And to our amazement the chief executive cleverly replied, "I'd sure like to hitch up and go out there with you!"
I was touched by your account of former First Lady Nancy Reagan (June 7). My late wife, Rebecca, was a kindergarten teacher and in the mid-'90s taught in West L.A. Once or twice a week she would take her class to a local park near Bel-Air. She would often notice, at one corner of the park, an old man seated on a park bench, staring quietly; on either side of him were seated two muscular young men, also staring quietly. When she remarked about it to a co-teacher she was told that that was President Reagan seated on the park bench. Apparently he came regularly to the park to watch the children at play.
In anticipation of Nancy Reagan's transition from caregiver to widow, may I say to her: Take the time to grieve when you feel you need to; to remember your special moments together, often, and take comfort from them; know that you have been blessed with something rare, a long and loving marriage -- nothing can take that away from you.