Hail, Farewell to the Chief
Thousands in California Pay Final Respects to Reagan
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page A01
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., June 7 -- The line of mourners began forming long before sunrise. They came from across Southern California and beyond. Under gray skies, clutching American flags and flowers, they stood for hours in a sprawling parking lot, sharing remembrance and grief, waiting to pay their respects.
"Sometimes, for someone like this, you have to do these things, no matter how long it takes," said businesswoman Aggie Lathrop.
"It's history," said her friend Cathy Roberts.
By noon, thousands had arrived, all to see the flag-draped mahogany casket carrying the body of former president Ronald Reagan lying inside the lobby of his library and museum here. So, too, had his family.
After a military band played "Hail to the Chief," and a minister led the family in prayer, Nancy Reagan, the former president's wife of 52 years, touched her cheek to the casket and cried. She left in the embrace of her daughter, Patti Davis.
Soon, two dozen buses began shuttling the great mass of mourners up and down a winding hillside, all day long and through the night.
It was the start of a week of meticulously planned memorial services for Reagan that will culminate Friday with a state funeral at Washington National Cathedral, then a sunset burial back here on the grounds of the library.
Those events will draw close family friends and leaders from around the world. The mourners who walked solemnly past Reagan's casket Monday, blowing kisses and wiping away tears, were a mural of American life -- hobbled old war veterans, suburban moms and ministers, students and software consultants.
Reagan, who died at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday at age 93 after a long and debilitating battle with Alzheimer's disease, had touched them all.
"He renewed a sense of optimism and hope in this country," said Roger Haskins, a minister from San Dimas, Calif., who arrived at 6 a.m. and waited six hours to bid the two-term Republican president farewell. "Reagan was a visionary. A lot of politicians give us information. He gave us ideas."
Farther down the line stood Brett Boschma, 35, reading a book that he had just bought about Reagan. He had driven two hours from Orange County.
"I think people are still looking for a real hero in America," he said. "He was one, and is one."
Reagan's body was brought by motorcade from a Santa Monica mortuary to his presidential library Monday morning. All along the 45-mile route, from sidewalks and freeway overpasses, onlookers clapped, saluted or waved banners of support. Along one stretch of freeway, the motorcade passed beneath a huge American flag that local firefighters had hung from the ladders of two fire engines.
The casket will remain inside the library for public viewing until Tuesday evening. It is to be flown to Washington on Wednesday, where it will be placed on a horse-drawn caisson and led up Constitution Avenue to the Capitol by a solitary drummer. In the Capitol Rotunda, the former president will lie in state for the public through the night and until Thursday evening.
President Bush, who has declared Friday a national day of mourning for Reagan, will deliver a eulogy at the former president's funeral. Dozens of current and past U.S. and world leaders are expected to attend, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose summits with Reagan in the 1980s helped lead to the end of the Cold War.
Reagan's family appeared first Monday at the Santa Monica mortuary. Hundreds of supporters lined the sidewalks outside. Nancy Reagan, wearing a black suit and a string of white pearls, walked toward the mortuary holding the hands of her two children, Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan. They paused to look at some of the gifts and tributes mourners have been leaving on the lawn -- handwritten notes and signs, candles and cowboy hats, even jelly beans, the former president's favorite candy.
At one point, Reagan's son from his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, Michael Reagan, picked one of the notes and read it to Nancy Reagan. He wiped a tear from his eye as he looked at the makeshift shrine.
An hour after the motorcade carrying Reagan's body left the mortuary, it arrived in Simi Valley. Eight white-gloved members of the armed forces removed the casket from a hearse and carried it into the library, past a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of a smiling Reagan in Western attire, holding a Stetson hat. The statue is titled "After the Ride."
A military honor guard flanked the casket as it was placed in the center of the library, and a military band played "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The Rev. Michael Wenning led the family in prayer, saying, "God now is in our midst."
Library officials say they expect more than 50,000 visitors to pay their respects to Reagan before his body is flown to Washington. Shuttle buses were carrying about 2,000 mourners an hour to the site Monday.
Joanne Drake, a Reagan family spokeswoman, said the former president had wanted memorial services to be held both in the nation's capital and in California, where he lived for much of his life and served as governor for eight years.
Among the first visitors to Reagan's casket Monday was another actor-turned-politician, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as a newly arrived immigrant in America put cowboy posters of Reagan on his living room walls. Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, stood in silence before the casket for several minutes before the rest of the public was allowed to walk past it.
Some who came removed baseball caps and bowed their heads. Others clasped their hearts and wept as the casket came into sight.
Shannon Pagano brought her two boys, ages 8 and 10, who told her they had never heard of Reagan before this weekend. "I couldn't believe that," she said as she took her place in a line of mourners that stretched for blocks. "I'm not a Republican, but I really thought he had charisma and morals."
"And he rose from nothing to become president," added Aggie Lathrop, who was standing nearby.
As evening approached, the crowd coming to view Reagan's casket continued to grow. Traffic backed up for more than a mile outside the community college parking lot from where buses were departing.
Bob Bryant had driven 70 miles from the flower shop he owns and brought red roses. "I grew up through his presidential era," he said. "I just wanted to be here."
As the fleet of buses came and went, and Red Cross volunteers passed out water bottles, security officials told new arrivals in line that the wait would be five hours.
Some mourners left. But all of them said they would be back, in the middle of the night.
Special correspondent Kimberly Edds contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company