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'He Is Home Now'

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004

SIMI VALLEY, Calif., June 11 -- The long goodbye had come to an end. As the sun set over the Santa Susana Mountains, and a gentle Pacific breeze blew, the mourners gathered on a gleaming hilltop and bowed their heads near his grave.

It was just the western scene that Ronald Reagan had hoped for when he wrote his last script.

Reagan's twilight burial service here outside his presidential library culminated a week of solemn pageantry and remembrance across the country, from the world leaders who gave tribute to him at Washington National Cathedral on Friday morning to the tearful throngs of Americans who lined roadways on both coasts waving flags as they watched the hearse carrying his casket pass.

About two hours before the ceremony here began, the plane carrying the late president and his family from Washington came streaking low across the bright blue Southern California sky and flew over the library, startling the gathering crowd of movie stars from Hollywood's golden age and political compatriots of Reagan's since the 1960s, when he gave up his career as an entertainer and ran for governor of California.

An eclectic group of several hundred mourners, all Reagan family friends and symbols of his varied life slowly took their seats. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came, and so did actor Mickey Rooney and Las Vegas showman Wayne Newton. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher arrived on the plane from Washington to attend the burial and bowed to Reagan's casket at the end.

A military honor guard carried the flag-draped coffin to a catafalque atop a broad stage covered in blue. Nancy Reagan followed, taking halting steps at the side of her military escort and shielding her eyes from the slanting sunlight.

"We have come from sea to shining sea to this soil which he loved so much," said the Rev. Michael H. Wenning, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, in the neighborhood where the Reagans lived.

The Reagan children spoke first. They said that their father, who had been in a coma for days, opened his eyes shortly before his death and looked at Nancy Reagan. They shared warm childhood memories of their father. And they described him as a gentleman with deep religious convictions.

Michael Reagan, whom Reagan adopted in 1945, said his father never treated him differently. "I was the chosen one; I was the lucky one," he said. "In all of his years, he never mentioned that I was adopted, either behind my back or in front of me. I was his son."

He also spoke lovingly of his father's sense of humor, noting a letter Reagan once wrote to his grandson, Cameron. "Some guy got $10,000 for my signature," Michael said the letter began. "Maybe this letter will help you pay for your college education."

Patti Davis recalled how her father presided over the funeral of one of her goldfish when she was a girl and told her the fish would be "swimming in the clear blue waters of heaven."

"My father never feared death," she said. "He never saw it as an ending."

Ronald Prescott Reagan touched his father's casket before he spoke. He said his father "lived a good, long life." He described him as an affectionate dad, saying he had an "inordinate fondness for earlobes."

"I'm surprised I have any lobes left," Reagan said.

A lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as the military honor guard carried the casket past the crowd and a few yards to the gravesite. There, as Nancy Reagan and the Reagan children gathered, Wenning gave a benediction. A 21-gun salute followed, an Army bugler played taps and four Navy jets screeched across the sky overhead.

After the military pall bearers had folded the flag, uncovering the polished wood of the coffin, Nancy Reagan pressed her cheek against her husband's coffin, mouthed the words "I love you" and gently kissed the casket before stroking it several times. She and the children embraced and wept.

Next to the gravesite, Reagan had these words inscribed: "I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there is purpose and worth to each and every life."

Earlier, his son Ron recalled the message his father had given to the country a decade ago when he acknowledged he had Alzheimer's: "I now begin the journey that will lead me to the sunset of my life."

"He is home now; he is free," Reagan said. "This evening, he has arrived."

Special correspondent Kimberly Edds in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company