Kirby Hanson, left, with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
When Nancy Reagan, aided by Marines from Camp Pendleton, lays a wreath at her husband's tomb Sunday, it will be to commemorate the centennial of his birth.
But in a nod to historical accuracy and to the Great Communicator's genial humor, staffers at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library are referring to the day just as he would — not as his 100th birthday, but as "the 61st anniversary of his 39th."
"He loved that line," said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, organizer of centennial activities that over the next few days will bring about 10,000 people to the newly renovated hilltop library in Simi Valley.
On Saturday, an invitation-only crowd of former Reagan staffers and political associates will enjoy a concert featuring Lee Greenwood, Lonestar and the Beach Boys. The public can view it live on http://www.reaganfoundation.org, which offers information on all the library's centennial events.
On Sunday, a flight of F-18 jets based on the USS Ronald Reagan will soar above the library during the wreath-laying. One of the pilots, Lt. Jason Harrel, is a former employee at the library, where he worked in the gift shop and as an event coordinator. The Beach Boys, one of Reagan's favorite groups, will sing "Happy Birthday." The birthday cake, according to a press release, will be decorated with 100 stars and 100 stripes and layered with "mixed, colored jelly beans."
Speeches and scholarly forums across the United States will mark the 40th president's 100th birthday. In Santa Barbara, the Young America's Foundation, a conservative group that owns Reagan's beloved Rancho del Cielo, will sponsor talks by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Friday night and by former Vice President Dick Cheney on Saturday night.
But the most lasting commemoration may be what's unveiled to the public Monday — the $15-million overhaul of the Reagan library. About half the artifacts now on display have never been seen by the public.
"We took down walls, we dismantled exhibits, we took out carpeting — this will be a completely new experience," said Melissa Giller, a library spokeswoman.
Many displays are designed for maximum appeal to a generation that was unborn when Reagan left office in 1989. Visitors can stand at a podium, focus on teleprompters and deliver Reagan's first inaugural address. They can videotape themselves emoting as they announce a Chicago Cubs game of the early 1930s, just as Reagan did for radio station WHO in Des Moines.
For more serious diversion, they can stand around a video game the size of a banquet table, press buttons, and noodle around with Reagan-era stock prices, inflation,and government spending — checking, for instance, the value of various investments at the beginning and end of his terms.
"They can learn economics through gaming," Heubusch said.
The redone library is divided into 17 galleries, each focusing on a period of Reagan's life, from his boyhood through his acting career, from his days as California governor to his poignant 1994 announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and would withdraw from public life.
His Alzheimer's letter has been on display since 1995. Now it's joined by audio of Reagan reading it, announcing, in shaky tones but with his characteristically upbeat manner: "At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this Earth doing the things I have always done."
When the library opened on Nov. 4, 1991, Reagan had been out of office less than three years. Archivists are still sifting through about 63 million pages of documents and have extracted some intriguing items for exhibition.
A college essay on football foreshadows Reagan's portrayal of Notre Dame great George Gipp in "Knute Rockne, All American." In it, he described a stadium as the "Temple of the great goddess Youth" and said that the game mirrors life, "with its triumphs and defeats, its jeers and praise."
A powerful exhibit on his attempted assassination in 1981 includes the blue pinstripe suit that was cut off him, as he lay seriously wounded at George Washington University Hospital. In a separate case are messages he jotted when he had a breathing tube down his throat.
One reads: "If I'd had this much attention in Hollywood, I'd have stayed there."
Several sections of the museum focus on the Cold War. Visitors to a faux Berlin Wall hear the sounds of snarling dogs and screaming guards. Children can crawl through a tunnel to freedom.
Some presidential libraries have been criticized for offering hagiography instead of history. Before the renovation, the Reagan library made scant mention of the Iran-Contra scandal, the secret U.S. sale of arms to Iran despite an embargo. The sales were an attempt to induce Iranian-backed guerrillas in Lebanon to free American hostages, but some of the proceeds went to fund anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The new library devotes a section to Iran-Contra, including a recording of Reagan's 1987 speech in which he admits responsibility for the affair.
"We're very upfront about it," Heubusch said. "It's accurate, and it's history."