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Reagan Grave Draws Crowd

Thousands flock to the presidential library near Simi Valley to mourn, bring flowers and pay final tribute.

June 15, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

They came quietly Monday to gaze upon the curved, limestone memorial that marks the gravesite of former President Reagan.

After a week of mourning, visitors continued to pay homage to the nation's 40th president and his widow, Nancy, on the first day the grave at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley has been available for public viewing. Reagan died June 5.

All the tributes and speeches were over.

Instead, visitors laid flowers and American flags on a table, signed condolence books and admired the hilltop view of a green farm valley ringed by golden mountains. A coastal fog to the west prevented a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean beyond but afforded a cool breeze under the warm sun.

By 11 a.m., an hour after the library opened, nearly a thousand people had filed past the gravesite that is shaded by oak trees. Standing behind a railing, they gazed upon a curved wall etched with words Reagan once spoke: "I know in my heart that man is good/ That what is right will always eventually triumph/ And there is purpose and worth to each and every life."

Throughout the grounds stood reminders of Reagan and his presidency -- a piece of concrete from the toppled Berlin Wall, lush grounds replicating the East Lawn of the White House, a marble marker engraved with the presidential oath.

His headstone is expected to be completed this week by Ventura stone carver Nathen Blackwell, 82. It will serve as the centerpiece of the 20-foot-wide memorial site where a crypt holds Reagan's remains. The Georgian gray granite tombstone will be inscribed with Reagan's name and the dates of his birth and death.

Although 106,000 people visited the library last week to pay their respects as Reagan's casket lay in repose for two days, some could not make the trip, and others came back. Ann Bateman of Calabasas, who is in her 60s, had viewed the casket and witnessed the procession Friday as Reagan's body was returned to Simi Valley from Washington, D.C., for burial.

By 5:30 a.m. Monday, she was first in line to see his gravesite.

"I had to be a part of all of it because I have so much love and respect for President Reagan," said Bateman, who wore a straw hat and red, white and blue attire.

Eugene F. Schultz, 75, of Williamsville, N.Y., was visiting family in the area when Reagan died, and his wife, Augusta, 73, asked him to drive her to the library. Schultz said he was surprised at the intensity of emotions for a president whose achievements were leavened by deficits and indicted Cabinet members.

"I'm mystified," Schultz said. "It's a Hollywood kind of thing, a spectacle. All this for a president who was in office 15 or 16 years ago. We don't even do this for a president who dies in office. I think it shows people are starving for something to hold on to."

Whatever their motives, visitors are expected to continue to flock to the library through the week, with admission reaching a peak over the weekend, said library Director R. Duke Blackwood. The library and museum will be open daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. through July 4. After that, it closes at 5 p.m.

"If you had asked me a week ago if we would have more than 100,000 people here, I would have said no," Blackwood said. "This past week clearly exceeded our expectations. What will happen this week is anyone's guess."

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For details about the library and its exhibits, call (800) 410-8354 or see the website at www.reaganlibrary.com.

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