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Not Everyone Swept Up In Reagan Whirlwind
Work, Weather, Indifference Keep Many Away

By Carol Morello and Elaine Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 11, 2004

Yesterday was a day of pomp and circumstance that Sharon Anastasi will always remember.

Not far from the U.S. Capitol, where tens of thousands filed past Ronald Reagan's coffin, Anastasi's daughter, Kimberly, marched into an auditorium at Constitution Hall for a ceremony marking her graduation from Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School.

The events surrounding the former president's state funeral were little more than an afterthought, remarked upon only for the potential to create traffic jams on roads leading to the central event: the high school graduation.

"If someone says, 'Ronald Reagan died,' I say, 'Oh, yeah,' " explained Anastasi as she stood on the steps outside Constitution Hall waiting for the rite of passage to begin. "It's not first and foremost in our minds. I mourn with Nancy Reagan. But these are our kids."

Even as mourners passed through the Capitol Rotunda and official Washington prepared for the first state funeral in three decades, for most of the city and its suburbs, life -- and life's work -- had to go on. Streets were clogged with pedestrians wearing plastic identity tags on neck chains. Groups of tourists alighted from charter buses for visits to bustling museums. The jackhammer noise of construction work filled the air.

Some people said they wished they could have gone to the Capitol to take part in such a historic occasion, but they had to work, or their children didn't want to stand in line, or it was just too hot. Others thought that walking past a closed coffin, even one holding a man whom they admired, had little more than symbolic value. Still others would not go under any circumstances because they had nothing complimentary to say about Reagan.

"Giving people the day off is the first good thing he ever did," said Katy Fisher of Accokeek, waiting to watch the graduation of her nephew, Nick.

For many, taking the day off work was not an option. "I'd love to go and be part of history, so that 20 years from now I could tell my grandkids about Mr. Reagan," said Ernest McSwain of Forestville, a construction worker repairing a hole on H Street. "But I have to work. I can watch it on TV instead."

The logistics of getting to the Capitol, and having to wait hours in line, were enough to keep many away.

Yared Wigezu, a taxi driver who immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 1996, said he would have gone to see Reagan's coffin if he could have found parking nearby. He and several other drivers originally from Ethiopia and Eritrea plan to stand on the sidewalks today and watch the cortege make its way to Washington National Cathedral.

"I know I won't make any money, anyway, because the streets will be closed," said Wigezu, who remembers first hearing about Reagan on the television news he watched in Africa.

Natalie Craven of Rockville and Ann Sutherland of the District knew what to do when the Reagan tribute began: avoid it.

"If you live in Washington long enough, you know not to go to mass events," said Craven, who was with Sutherland at Reagan National Airport yesterday to see their sons off to Ireland. Said Sutherland: "You just don't want to deal with it. I'll say my prayer for him privately."

Even as the television screens in the passenger lounges and bars filled with images of visitors paying homage, some travelers at the airport named for the 40th president said they had been deterred by long lines to get into the Rotunda.

Antonio Stewart, an airport employee who was born just as Reagan was assuming office, said he went to the Capitol and left without ever getting inside. "There was such a big crowd. Some people were talking about him, and others were crying," he said. "I didn't want to wait in line."

Many Reagan supporters who did go said that although the ceremonies this week have supplied touching moments, the coffin viewing was mostly void of emotion.

John Sheehan, visiting from New Hampshire with his wife, Elizabeth, ended up at the International Spy Museum, where they stopped at the Cold War section with its mock-up of the Berlin Wall.

Not going to view Reagan's coffin did not signify disrespect, he said. "We showed our support when he was living, with our votes," he said. "We're old enough to know that funerals are supposed to be for the relatives left behind. We decided to continue on with life."

Standing beside a small chunk of concrete taken from the real Berlin Wall and displayed in a plastic showcase, Lisa Christen of Fort Wayne, Ind., told her two sons that Reagan had urged the Soviets to "tear down that wall."

"We can best honor Ronald Reagan by living the kind of lives he demonstrated," said her mother, Linda Kelly of Richmond, Ind. "By going out to be Americans, by honoring our country and our history."

If she had to choose, Helen Dana, a special education teacher at Montgomery High, would have preferred to see Nancy Reagan arrive with her husband's coffin at Andrews Air Force Base. It was heartbreakingly poignant, Dana said, to watch the mixture of grief and relief on the widow's face.

"Mr. Reagan's passing is an important historical note," said Erik Fiske, waiting at Constitution Hall to watch his son, Michael, graduate.

"But this piece today is not as significant as what he did in office. And my son and this day are what's important to me."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company