Ronald Reagan returned to his alma mater this weekend and made a joyful, emotional speech that reflected both the appealing personal qualities and the limited, small-school educational perspective of the Republican presidential nominee.
With a tear in his eye, a broad smile on his face and looking far younger than his 69 years, Reagan appeared Friday night at a pep rally at little Eureka College and accepted the gift of a red and white football jersey from his 86-year-old onetime football team to win one for the Gipper."
It was a reference to Reagan's role as Notre Dome football hero George Gipp in the 1940 movie "knute Rockne," a role Reagan obtained by showing a producer pictures of himself in a Eureka College football uniform.
Reagan was one of 45 students to be graduated from Eureka in 1932, in the depths of the Depression. Few of te graduates had any job prospects, and the shoe store owned by Reagan's father, Jack, in Dixon, Ill., had gone out of business the year before.
In a brief speech that had little reference to his current campaign, Reagan recalled the Depression days, when professors taught without salaries and merchants extended them credit. Then he compared Eureka, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Christian Church, with the great universities of the land and pronounced his alma mater the best of all.
"I have since had the opportunity, by way of the office I held in California, to serve on the board of regents of a great university system . . .," said Reagan, who remains a Eureka College trustee. "And if I had to do it all over again, I'd come right back here and start where I was before."
As Reagan expressed it, the big colleges and universities "look attractive and glamorous on a Saturday with the stadium filled and everything," but they have definite limitations.
"Those big assembly-line diploma mills may teach, [but] with all due respect to them, you will have memories, you will have friendships that are impossible on those great campuses and that just are peculiar to this place," Reagan told the students to fervent applause.
Reagan's memories were mostly of football at Eureka, and of Coach McKinzie, who called him by his boyhood nickname of "Dutch" and said he could wear his new Eureka football jersey, emblazoned with the numeral "80" and the American flag, when he jogs around the White House Rose Garden.
To the delight of the crowd, Reagan took off his suit coat and put the football jersey on without mussing his hair.
It was at least the 10th time Reagan has returned to Eureka since his graduation, beginning with a visit to receive an honorary award as doctor of humane letters in 1947 for "understanding and exposing Communists and their influence" while he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
The local newspaper in Peoria, 21 miles away, welcomed him, too, in an editorial that celebrated Reagan but viewed him with a critical eye.
"Reagan was into almost everything as a college student," said the editorial in The Peoria Journal Star. ". . . By the time he was graduated in 1932, Reagan had served three years as president of the Booster Club, three years as a first-string guard on the football team, three years as the principal basketball cheerleader, three years as the school's No. 1 swimmer and one year as its swimming coach, two years as feature editor of the yearbook and two years as a member of the student senate, including one as its president.
"He left behind a body of good will as a man whose company was enjoyable, whose integrity was strong -- a hard worker and a person of courage. Today, even his detractors find little to fault in his personal traits. It's his politics, his economics, his social concerns, his overall stature and, yes, his age that give some people pause. . . ."
In 1928, as president of his freshman class, Reagan led a successful student strike protesting the elimination of courses, which would have prevented some seniors from being graduated. As a result, the college president, already under student fire for his strict antidrinking and anti-dancing policies, was forced to resign.
In 1966, campaigning for governor of California, Reagan made the "free speech" student demonstrations at the University of California's Berkeley campus a focal point of his candidacy. The student demonstrators, he said repeatedly, should "obey the rules or get out."
Reagan's happy homecoming night at Eureka ended with him lighting the victory bonfire after a warming admonition from McKinzie not to singe his eyebrows.
It was old memories of football games and fun and fraternity that dominated Reagan's talk and seemed, however briefly, to crowd out the pressures of the campaign.
"As far as I am concerned, everything good that has happened to me -- everything -- started here on this campus in those four years that still are such a part of my life," Reagan said.
He talked like a man who believed it.