By Jim Dunn
Of Sauk Valley Media
On Feb. 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was riding high as he celebrated his 73rd birthday in Dixon, Illinois, the county seat of Lee County and the town where he lived as a youth for a dozen years starting in 1920.
More than half a century earlier, Reagan had ventured forth from his hometown to earn a bachelor’s degree at Eureka College, class of 1932 – not an easy feat during the Great Depression.
Then he became a radio sports announcer in Iowa, an actor in about 50 Hollywood movies, president of the Screen Actors Guild, a television personality, and spokesman for General Electric.
Turning to politics in the 1960s, he served as governor of California for two terms and, on his third try, was elected 40th president of the United States.
His hometown birthday bash in 1984 found Reagan – tall, handsome and known for his sense of humor – in good spirits as he addressed a crowd that packed Dixon High School’s Lancaster Gymnasium.
His speech came after he and his wife, Nancy, rode in a parade and lunched at his boyhood home, which local residents had rushed to renovate in time for the big day.
“Birthdays are special moments, and you’ve given me one today,” Reagan said. “But I must tell you, even though this is the 34th anniversary of my 39th birthday [the crowd laughs], those numbers don’t faze me at all. I believe Moses was 80 when God first commissioned him for public service.”
After more audience chuckles, Reagan continued: “And I also remember something that Thomas Jefferson once said. He said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that – (laughter) – I’ve stopped worrying. There are those who say I’ve stopped working.” (More laughter)
Reagan, known as The Great Communicator for his TV addresses to the nation from the Oval Office, could afford to poke fun at himself.
He was feeling healthy and fit, nearly three years after being shot by John Hinckley in March 1981, barely two months after his inauguration.
The economy was growing again after a tough 1982 recession.
And his re-election chances looked good. Reagan, a Republican, would go on to receive 59 percent of the vote that fall and carry 49 states in a rout of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. The former vice president had served under the man Reagan more narrowly defeated in 1980, President Jimmy Carter.
It was quite an accomplishment for the only president born in Illinois.
The son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in a second-floor Main Street apartment in the Whiteside County village of Tampico.
A conservative icon to many, a proponent of leaner government and a stronger national defense, Reagan served from 1981 to 1989 amid trying times.
Among them: Reagan’s firing in 1981 of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers; the 1983 explosion at a U.S. barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines and sailors; the 1986 space shuttle Columbia disaster; and the Iran-Contra scandal where arms were traded for hostages.
But in Reagan’s Illinois, folks remember the positives: a new spirit of optimism; economic expansion; the invasion of Grenada to oust leftist revolutionaries; and nuclear arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union.
At the Ronald Reagan Birthplace, Tampico residents still serve cake every year on Reagan’s birthday. A few years ago, they erected a statue of Reagan as a boy playing on a cannon in the town park.
In Dixon, they’re fixing up Reagan’s boyhood home again. Numerous rehab projects were undertaken in 2017 to repair deteriorated parts of the house, built in 1891.
Down the street in a restored three-story brick school building, the Northwest Territory Historic Center preserves Reagan’s grade-school classroom and has a display of his movie posters.
Two statues commemorate Reagan: one portrays him wearing a suit outside the boyhood home, and the other, in the city’s downtown riverfront park, shows him, clad in riding clothes, astride a stallion – just as he appeared in a local parade in 1950.
An effort to erect a statue of young Reagan as a lifeguard at Dixon’s Lowell Park has yet to bear fruit. Over seven summers, he rescued 77 struggling swimmers from the Rock River.
Reagan’s tough stance against communism is recalled in Dixon’s downtown, where a replica of the Berlin Wall stands. Less than a year after he left office, the Cold War-era wall fell.
Reagan’s name would be preserved on everything from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, to an airport, government buildings and roads, to Dixon’s own Reagan Middle School.
His post-presidency, which included publishing his memoir, “An American Life,” in 1990 and dedicating his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, in 1991, was dominated by his bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He bore the illness for nearly 10 years until his death in California on June 5, 2004. He was 93.
All that still lay ahead as Reagan stood at the Dixon High School podium on Feb. 6, 1984, and thanked “everyone who made this terrific day possible.”
The president praised the spirit of small-town America that had the nation “back on her feet and moving forward with confidence.”
And he said: “So, you see, the reason I came home today was not to celebrate my birthday, but to celebrate Dixon and America. Honor, integrity and kindness do exist all across our land.”
Honor, integrity and kindness are qualities that inspired a president. He learned to appreciate them in small-town Illinois – Reagan’s Illinois.
Jim Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.