The "young black man" whom President Reagan called yesterday "probably the closest friend I ever had" was the late William Franklin Burghardt, the center on the 1931 Eureka College football team on which Reagan was a starting guard.
According to accounts given by both men over the years, Burghardt and Reagan became friends playing football for the small Illinois school and remained in correspondence over the years until Burghardt died on Aug. 8, 1981.
In an incident celebrated by Reagan in his autobiography and confirmed by his football coach, Ralph McKinzie, Reagan took Burghardt and the team's other black player into his own home when a hotel in a small Illinois town refused them admittance on a road trip in 1931. Many public places in the Middle West in those days were as rigidly segregated as they were in the South.
"I just don't think he was conscious of race at all," Burghardt said of Reagan in a 1981 interview with The Washington Post. "You have listened to the Jimmy Carter debate during the campaign. Reagan said that when he was growing up they didn't know they had a racial problem. It was the dumbest thing a grown person could say, but he'd never seen it. I believe that hotel was his first experience of that sort."
Discussing this incident in his autobiography "Where's the Rest of Me?" and in speeches early in his political career, Reagan claimed that he and McKinzie had devised a ruse that fooled Burghardt and the other black player, a tackle named Jim Rattan. They told Burghardt and Rattan that the hotel had run out of rooms.
Burghardt said in the 1981 interview that he was not fooled because he had often been refused admittance to restaurants because of his race. But he went along and took a cab to Reagan's home in Dixon, Ill., about 15 miles away.
For decades afterward, the two men exchanged phone calls and letters, always calling each other by their nicknames at the time, "Burgie and Dutch." Burghardt, a registered Republican who said he voted independent, voted for Reagan in 1980 and started calling him "the president" after he was elected.
Burghardt came from Greenfield, Ill., where his father, grandfather and uncle had been barbers. There was a small black community in the town dating to the 19th century, but by the time Reagan helped recruit Burghardt for the football team in 1930 all of the families except Burghardt's parents had left, driven out by the lack of jobs during the Depression.
Burghardt played semipro football and basketball and coached after he graduated, then earned a master's degree at Iowa University and a doctorate at New York University. He headed the physical education department at Morgan State University for 19 years and moved to Bowie State College for a short time before a stroke forced him into retirement in 1974.
He last saw Reagan on a campaign swing in 1980 on the day Reagan was endorsed for president by black leaders, including Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams.