June 5th was the 12th anniversary of the death of Ronald Reagan. When the former president died in 2004, thousands upon thousands of Americans stood in line to pay their respects in the rotunda of the Capital Building --- including Glenn Beck. Ronald Reagan had a huge impact on Americans and the United States. People still talk about our 40th president --- the man, the president, the legend. In this series, we explore Reagan's early years, his conversion from Democrat to Republican, the path to his election, and how his policies brought back morning in America.
Ronald Reagan Part II: The Early Years
Ronald Wilson Reagan, born February 6th, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. Nicknamed Dutch, he was the second son of Jack and Nelle Reagan. Jack was a shoe salesman with a thirst for liquor, a storyteller who loved to regale fellow drinkers at the local saloon. Nelle was a housewife who joined the Disciples of Christ, a Christian church staunchly opposed to the consumption of alcohol.
Jack's inability to hold a steady job forced the Reagan family to bounce from town to town. This really affected Ronald who got used to being alone. He loved to hang out in the woods, and he was very self-sufficient. Returning from school one day, he found his father sprawled out on the front porch, completely drunk and out of it. He went to his mother and said, "This is just horrible." His mother said, "Look, your father has an illness, and he really tries. And you have to be understanding of him." She said, "When something bad happens in life, that's because God is going to make something good happen down the way."
Like his mother, 11-year-old Ronald found a wellspring of hope and comfort in the Disciples of Christ and was baptized in the church on September 21st, 1922. By 15, he was teaching Sunday school classes and delivering the Easter sermon, developing his speaking and performance skills through the church.
By high school, Ronald was thriving as an A student, a member of the swimming and football teams, and one of the most popular kids in his class. In the summers, he spent his days manning a concession stand and lifeguarding a dangerous stretch of the Rock River, saving a reported 77 lives in his five years on the job. After high school, Ronald Reagan enrolled in Eureka College, earning an economics degree in 1932.
Reagan started out a staunch Democrat and supporter of FDR. Not yet politically active, he headed off to Chicago to find work in radio. Unable to land a job there, he wound up in Iowa at WHO radio in Des Moines where he made a name for himself announcing Chicago Cubs and the White Sox games. Fans were drawn to the way he could paint pictures of the games and the surroundings with his words.
In the off season, the Cubs would hold training camp in California. And Reagan made the trip with the team each year. In 1937, he met with an acting agent while there who got him a screen test with Warner Brothers. The studio liked him immediately and offered him a contract for $200 a week, many times what he had been making doing radio in Des Moines. Within just a few months, Reagan was appearing in his first movie, Love Is On the Air.
In 1939, he was cast in the movie Brother Rat. It was his most substantial role in a major film yet. But more importantly, for Reagan, playing opposite him was actress Jane Wyman who then was in the final stages of divorce. By the time filming ended, they were engaged. Reagan and Wyman married in January 1940 and had two children, Maureen, born in 1941, and Michael, whom the couple adopted in 1945, just a few days after his birth.
In 1944, Reagan signed a million dollar contract with Warner Brothers, which may have sparked the beginning of the end of his leftist ideology. Since the tax rate at the time was over 90 percent, he frequently and vehemently complained about the egregiously high taxes. Still, apparently not quite totally convinced yet, in 1948, he spoke out on the radio on behalf of the Democratic Party.
During the late 1940s, Reagan and Wyman divorced. They had grown apart during her rise to Hollywood prominence, as he started to fade. Meanwhile, Reagan was becoming more and more politically active. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and worked to distance the union from communist influence. He was also working with the FBI as an informant on communists and testified before the House Committee on un-American activities, but wasn't asked to name any names.
Reagan would later cite Democratic resistance to rooting out communism as one of the factors that drove him to the political right. Another factor was a young unknown actress named Nancy Davis, whom he met at a dinner part in 1949. Nancy came from a decidedly right-wing family, and with Reagan heading in that direction already, the relationship sped up Ronald Reagan's political transformation. The two were married in 1952.
In 1953, with his acting fortunes quickly disappearing, Reagan landed a job that would bring him into America's living rooms every week and secure his financial future over the next eight years as host of the General Electric theater. Listening to Reagan's speeches and performances, it becomes apparent why he became known as The Great Communicator. Eventually, Reagan's politics would interfere with the way he earned his living. He was fired as host of the GE Theater in 1962 for being outspoken politically.
During a speech, he referred to FDR's 1933 New Deal Program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, as one of the programs of big government. Undaunted, Reagan would later reiterate his point in his support of a candidate for president. As Ronald Wilson Reagan burst into the national political consciousness during the biggest speech of his life, up to that point.
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