It was the day after a snowstorm, but Michael Reagan received a warm welcome at Tampico, his father's birthplace, when he visited Feb. 6 on what would have been Ronald Reagan's 99th birthday. This was Michael Reagan's first visit to his father's early stomping grounds. Tampico, population 800, is where the president spent the first three months of his life. The central Illinois town was the first stop of a bus tour planned by Eureka College staff.
It was the day after a snowstorm, but Michael Reagan received a warm welcome at Tampico, his father's birthplace, when he visited Feb. 6 on what would have been Ronald Reagan's 99th birthday.
This was Michael Reagan's first visit to his father's early stomping grounds.
Tampico, population 800, is where the president spent the first three months of his life. The central Illinois town was the first stop of a bus tour planned by Eureka College staff. Grade school beauty queens wore crowns, and people gathered around to show Michael Reagan the building where his grandparents once made their home.
In Tampico, Michael Reagan met his third cousin, Ronald Habbe of Coleta, for the first time.
"Yes, we are also Ronald and Nancy," Habbe said grinning. "No, we were never mistaken for the president and first lady."
In Dixon, where the president spent most of his childhood, and Eureka College, which organized its famous alum's birthday observances, the red carpet was again rolled out for the son. Michael Reagan's message as he shook hands and greeted crowds was to continue his father's legacy.
As the bus set off from Eureka College, the stories about the 40th president began to unfold. Brian Sajko, Eureka College vice president and curator of the Ronald Reagan Museum, began the stories, and Michael Reagan added his own memories of Dad.
One advantage to having a famous father, he said, "Every one of us offered our father up as a commencement speaker at the high school graduation."
Along the Reagan Trail, the day was marked with decorations, cake, candles and the traditional birthday song.
At the little museums in these towns, Reagan memorabilia included his days as a member of the football team and when he worked as a lifeguard to earn money for his college tuition.
In 1932, Reagan earned a bachelor's degree from Eureka College, where he became hooked on acting. One movie that made him famous was playing college football star George Gipp in the movie "Knute Rockne - All American."
The family moved several times as Jack Reagan tried to provide for his family. When Ronald was 9, the family moved to Dixon and remained there until he grew to adulthood.
His parents never owned their own home until Ronald Reagan bought them a house and moved them to California.
In Tampico, as Reagan's eldest son walked through the modest apartment where his father was born above what used to be a bank, Michael Reagan said, "You see this house is no different from the ranch in California. It is still as simple as this place."
He commented often that his father's adobe ranch was far from palatial: "He built all of the fences and dug all the post-holes."
Despite his fame as a movie star and later in political life, Michael Reagan said his father "never let people forget that his real home was right here in the Midwest."
At Sauk Valley Community College near Dixon, students served a luncheon attended by prominent members of the community.
"I think it's really neat to see someone who would take the time to come and talk to students," said DeAndre Kocsis, a second year student from Arizona.
Sarah Giroux, a freshman from Sterling, said she was pleasantly surprised by the president's son because, "I didn't know what a jokester he was."
When Michael Reagan was adopted by Ronald Reagan and actress Jane Wyman, they already had a daughter, Maureen, with whom he shared a close relationship. She died in 2001 after a five-year struggle with melanoma. Another baby daughter died in infancy.
Ronald Reagan married Nancy Davis four years after his divorce from Wyman. They had two children, Patricia and Ron. The former president developed Alzheimer's disease around 1994, and died in Los Angeles at age 93 on June 5, 2004.
Before his beloved sister, whom he called Merm, died, Michael Reagan said she told him to carry on his father's legacy, and that is what he does these days - tell the story of Ronald Reagan and what he stood for.
"All the way throughout his life, my father stayed true to himself," Michael Reagan said.
He lamented the lack of education about his father's role in bringing down the Berlin Wall. When he was in Berlin recently during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Michael Reagan said despite his father's call for Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the infamous wall, "there was no mention of Ronald Reagan there."
Misconceptions about the Berlin Wall continue to abound, he said. "Young people (in Germany) actually tell you that Americans put up the Berlin Wall to keep the Communists out of America."
He said if Americans don't tell the story of what happened there, then "the other side will fill in the hole, and it's their version that everyone will learn." He hopes the Ronald Reagan exhibit he opened at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin, will help fill in the gaps.
This year, he is taking high school students from the U.S. to the Czech Republic where they can see the bunkers and other artifacts of the Iron Curtain. They also will visit Berlin and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and a concentration camp.
The Liberty Education Tours also will bring students from the former Eastern bloc countries to the U.S., including the Reagan ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.
Eureka College senior Mark Kline from Lewistown who was one of the Reagan Fellows who went on the bus tour, said the day-long trip was worth the time.
"My newfound appreciation for Ronald Reagan comes from seeing the communities in his life, the values he learned, the culture and his upbringing."
With all the publicity as an actor, governor and president, Kline said, "It's amazing that he never lost sight of who he was and didn't look down on his roots. I really enjoyed the trip."
Catharine Schaidle can be reached at (309) 686-3290 or firstname.lastname@example.org.