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Admirers use ingenuity to honor Reagan centennial

The former president's 100th birthday will be celebrated with dinners, speeches, essay contests, a ceremony at the Super Bowl and a concert by the Beach Boys.

January 29, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Former President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech is on display at the National Archives to mark his centennial.
Former President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech is on… (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Ronald Reagan admirers wanted to go all out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the former president's birth on Feb. 6 — a fighter jet flyover, a 21-gun salute and a Beach Boys performance are among the commemorations. But the Great Communicator's centennial birthday conflicts with another great American mega-event: Super Bowl Sunday.

Yet Reaganites, true to the Gipper's attitude, saw an opportunity.

Just before kickoff, a tribute to Reagan will be displayed on the massive Jumbotron at Cowboys Stadium in Texas, perhaps fitting for this larger-than-life persona.

It's one of the scores of centennial events planned through the year for Reagan — from his birthplace in Tampico, Ill. to his final resting place in Simi Valley — in a celebration that has taken on greater significance after Republican gains in Congress.

Although many of the events are being organized by or with help of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, activities large and small are being planned by others, including GOP clubs, former Reagan aides and admirers of the only former California governor to be elected president

In Valparaiso, Ind., Chuck Williams, a Board of Public Works member and former county GOP chairman, was so fond of the former president that he named his daughter Reagan. Now, he's seeking to name a street in town after him.

"He was an inspirational president," Williams said. "We've got Roosevelt Road. We've got Garfield Boulevard. We've got Lincoln Way." Why not Ronald Reagan Parkway, he asked.

Congress created a bipartisan Reagan Centennial Commission to help plan events, but no federal funding was provided. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) didn't believe such spending would be very Reagan-like. Instead, many celebrations are privately funded.

"The centennial celebration is about more than just one day and one man," said John Heubusch, the Reagan foundation's executive director. "It's a yearlong historic occasion for people to remember an extraordinary man who restored pride in America and spread freedom throughout the world."

Events range from film showings, essay contests and lectures about Reagan to dinners and musical tributes. Reagan's boyhood home of Dixon, Ill., will premiere a 25-minute musical composition, "Reagan of Illinois."

The Reagan foundation plans a concert at the Reagan library featuring, among others, the Beach Boys, who were banned from the capital's 1983 Fourth of July celebration by Interior Secretary James G. Watt, angering Nancy Reagan. Watt said the group attracted the "wrong element" but changed his tune after the president and Mrs. Reagan made it clear that they liked the Beach Boys.

The former first lady, 89, is expected to attend a number of the centennial events.

Some are designed to familiarize a younger generation with the Reagan story.

Indiana has invited fourth- through 12th-graders to submit a 500-word essay that answers the question: "What is Ronald Reagan's most important contribution to American history?" The winner will read the essay at a statehouse ceremony. Seminars about Reagan are planned at universities.

"I'm 27 years old, and I barely remember the Reagan era," said Jay Kenworthy, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, who is coordinating Indiana events. "I think there's a lot of young adults and kids who aren't necessarily sure what happened in that time in history."

The Chicago Cubs are planning Reagan Day at Wrigley Field, in which his son, Michael, will throw out a ceremonial first pitch. In the 1930s Reagan re-created Cubs radio broadcasts from descriptions provided by Western Union.

Dinners will be served in his honor, including one in Maryland featuring favorite Reagan dishes prepared by a former Century Plaza Hotel chef who served the first couple. Among the menu items: "Prune Whip," described as one of Reagan's many favorite desserts.

Though Reagan died in 2004, his legacy endures in a big way.

At the Capitol, lawmakers from both parties regularly invoke his name — positively and negatively. President Obama took Lou Cannon's book, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" on his recent vacation. And the candidates for Republican National Committee chairman were asked during a recent debate: "Aside from President Reagan, who is your political hero?"

But there are limits to the commemorations. A recent effort to change Mt. Diablo to Mt. Reagan was rejected in the face of strong opposition in the liberal San Francisco Bay area. A move in Congress to put Reagan on the $50 bill in place of Ulysses S. Grant sputtered.

Yet in some quarters, festivities have become worthy of Reagan's Hollywood. Before a national television audience of millions, a Reagan-themed float glided down the Rose Parade route New Year's morning.

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