"Oh, it was a small town . . . with pleasant thoughts of the past to balance fears of the uncertain future." -- Ronald Reagan, 1965
If you could lift the Republican Convention from Detroit, disguise it as a small town, then plop it down in mid-America, you would have to name it Eureka.
Like the convention, Eureka is Republican. Like the convention, it is mostly white and well-heeled, quite conservative and thoroughly enamored of the idea that a retired movie star is the only thing standing between America and perdition.
In almost every sense, this farm town of 3,300 about 20 miles east of Peoria is a microcosm of the great rest of America that candidate Ronald Reagan says is hungary for his leadership and values.
The Eureka of pleasant past and fear of future has a special relationship with Reagan. He graduated in 1932 from Eureka College, which is almost as small and remarkable today as it was when Reagan studied here.
The town is a midwestern original, evocative of the Norman Rockwell vision. An old courthouse and a rusty antiaircraft gun dominate the square. Men sit around in billed caps with tractor and fertilizer company logos. Parking is free. Yards are trim, streets clean.
But community pride still suffers a bit from the loss of a Libby Co. pumpkin canning factory about a decade ago. Eureka thereupon stopping calling itself pumpkin capital of the world and abandoned its annual pumpkin festival.
Although Reagan was born and reared in Tampico and Dixon, towns about 100 miles north of here, Eureka, by his accounting, left the most indelible marks of formation.
He starred in football, lettered in two other sports. He coached the swimmers and was a basketball cheerleader. He worked for room and board. He won acting awards. He was a leader of a student strike protesting faculty reductions. He once spirited a cow into the library.
That was the base of a love affair between Reagan and town-and-gown Eureka that persists to this day. A splendid fieldhouse bears his name, he has been a college trustee and he has returned time and again to the campus to speak and lend support.
As Eurekans huddle around the blue glow of television from Joe Louis Arena on these searing central Illinois nights, it is as though a native son is being lifted to political immortality.
Retired Woodford County Circuit Court Judge Sam (Haircut) Harrod III, friend of Reagan and former college board chairman, summed up the feeling of most Eurekans.
"Gov. Reagan speaks to me strongly, with common sense. I think he represents an enormous number of people who want to see government spending reduced and government forced to live within its means as the rest of us do. He'll look at our tax dollars as family money," Harrod said.
Harrod's nickname tells you a good deal about this part of the country. He became famous for requiring young offenders to get haircuts as a condition of probation. A state court commission in 1976 suspended him as a result, but the state Supreme Court overturned the suspension.
Haircut Harrod's constituents, however, had no problem with his approach to justice. He served 14 years until retiring this year at 40 to go into law practice.
Short hair seems just right in Eureka. The county was one of the few in Illinois that voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. The last major Democratic officeholder was a sheriff about 20 years ago. It is so Republican that Dr. Burrus Dickinson, publisher of the Woodford County Journal, rarely writes a political endorsement editorial -- readers are going to vote Republican anyhow.
"We only occasionally endorse a candidate," Dickinson said, "but we probably will endorse Reagan, although people take it for granted we would support him."
These days of media curiosity over Eureka and its little college have sent Dr. Daniel Gilbert, the school president, into some introspection about his institution and his charges.
When Reagan was here, Eureka had about 220 students. Today it has about 450, a red-ink budget and only a small endowment. Eureka College has accepted some federal aid and three-term trustee Reagan expressed displeasure. a
"I know Gov. Reagan's love for this college is real and genuine and I recognize his patience. He has opposed our taking federal aid but he realized we couldn't go on without it," Gilbert said.
In the spirit of keeping a private school private, Reagan over the years helped Eureka raise money. The fieldhouse named for Reagan and his older brother, Neil, came about that way. Originally, the drive was for a Ronald Reagan-Jane Wyman fine arts building. When they divorced, the plan was dropped and the money used for the sports complex.
In its small way, the college is a sort of lifeline to reality for the surrounding town. The only blacks here are the college students, mostly from inner-city Chicago, who make up nearly a fifth of the enrollment.
"The racism here is as deep as anything I've seen," said Gilbert, a native Virginian. "Our kids don't have much of a world vision -- that's why many of them come here, I suppose. When I look at the student of today, I know that Ronald Reagan is the type of student I'd like to have here. He was a natural leader and when he was thrust into that role, he handled it very well."
So that's the way it is in Eureka, where just about everyone thinks that handsome Ronald Reagan is the greatest thing since frozen custard.
Everyone, that is, except the Don and Hubert Nixon familes who live across the street from Reagan fieldhouse. One of the Nixon ladies said, "we haven't decided how we'll vote yet. We'll probably vote Reagan because of the college."