The Home Town
In Illinois, Memories of a Favorite Son
Heartland Town Mourns Reagan, Known to Many as a 'Normal Guy'
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A08
DIXON, Ill., June 6 -- Illinois may be the Land of Lincoln, but a quietly famous patch along the Rock River turned into the Land of Reagan on Sunday as the former president's home town came out to praise and mourn him.
American flags flew at half-staff outside the police station and the McDonald's. A committee of town elders met to finish plans for a memorial service in the works for years. At the church where the boy they called "Dutch" taught Sunday school, the Rev. Lynn Bond led prayers in his name.
"The son of a shoe salesman becomes president of the United States. It truly is an American story," Bond told worshippers at First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. "The things that made him president were begun right here in Dixon."
The day after Ronald Reagan's body finally quit on him was not a time to dwell on the former president's complexities. Personal memories and television images of him melded in Dixon into a single, smooth portrait of a good-hearted man who made the earth move without selling his soul.
"I was telling my wife this morning that I forgot whether he was a Republican or a Democrat," said Ken Dunwoody, 82. "He was a guy you could go have a cup of coffee with and talk about the game. He didn't have that air of being important."
The word that kept coming up was "normal." A political handler's dream in a nation where voters don't want their presidents to seem much different from themselves, the folksiness came naturally to Reagan.
"He was a normal guy," declared Ken Duriea after walking up the hill on Ninth Street to the house on Hennepin Avenue where a young Reagan moved with his family on Dec. 6, 1920. Duriea and his wife placed a bouquet of flowers beneath a statue of a smiling Reagan in a business suit.
"A good man. He was just an average boy," said Sue Devers, tying a red ribbon and three laminated snapshots of Reagan and her father to the legs of the statue.
All day in this town 100 miles west of Chicago, townspeople arrived in twos and threes to lay flowers or leave a memento, including bags of colorful jelly beans made popular by Reagan as the candy of choice in the Oval Office. A local radio station advised listeners how to order jelly beans from the Web site of Reagan's presidential library.
"Mr. Reagan. You helped bring peace to our world. We pray there is now sweet peace in yours," read one letter, signed "A Greatful Nation."
Two people left "Just Say No" T-shirts in honor of the anti-drug campaign most associated with former first lady Nancy Reagan. Dixon's mayor presented a wreath that read: "In honor of Dutch. A great human being and Dixon's finest son."
In fact, Reagan was born in an apartment above a general store in Tampico, Ill., about 30 miles from Dixon, which had about 10,000 residents then. He had lived in at least seven homes by the time John and Nelle Reagan and their two boys moved to the two-story frame house on Hennepin.
Reagan, called Dutch by his father because he resembled a Dutchman, attended Dixon's public schools and was an undersize tackle on Dixon High's losing football team. Although John Reagan was an alcoholic and money was short, the eternally optimistic Reagan described his boyhood as a "rare Huck Finn idyll."
Bond said Reagan taught Sunday school for more than two years as a teenager, taking after his mother, who led classes for more than 16 years. He also acted in plays she directed and, when the cold weather broke, spent seven summers as a lifeguard along the fast-flowing Rock River.
Visitors who moved Sunday through the Hennepin house -- a comfortable home made "200 percent" better during its restoration as a historic place, according to one neighbor -- saw youthful football photos and a spot where two small fireplace tiles had been set aside.
In that spot, Reagan once told his older brother, Neil, he hid pocket money. On a campaign visit to the house, he found the spot. In memory of the tale, a mourner left a tin of pennies Sunday afternoon at the foot of the Reagan statue.
Mayor Jim Burke said Reagan's legacy has strengthened Dixon, bringing more than 16,000 visitors a year through the doors of his former home. And he likes to think Dixon earned the favor.
"It was in this community that it must have hit him that he could do just about anything he wanted," Burke said. The mayor related the story that B.J. Frazer, one of Reagan's teachers, told him after college that he needed to set his sights higher than selling shoes at Montgomery Ward.
"If someone hadn't gotten him fired up," Burke said of the journey that took Reagan into broadcasting, acting and politics, "there might only have been a notice put up yesterday at the Lee County Nursing Home."
Cardiac doctor Greg Wcisel took a detour to pay homage on his way home from Iowa City. He keeps what his wife described as a shrine to the former president in their Wausau, Wis., home.
"I'm a huge fan of the man. He brought back an optimism to this country. That's in the past now, and in the future. He believed in this country being the greatest country," Wcisel said. "He was a man of conviction and courage."
"He was a man who had principles, who lived by them in everything he said and did," he said. Wcisel named his 20-month-old son Reagan.
"If he grows up to be as great a man," Wcisel said of young Reagan, dressed in a red, white and blue T-shirt, "he would make his father more proud than he can even imagine."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company