Virtual Tour: The Early Years

Other Virtual Tours
Click and drag your cursor for a virtual tour of the Reagan Museum's exhibit on his early years. (From the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum and Library.)

Reagan speaks about Family
I was born in 1911, in a flat above the local bank in Tampico, Illinois. According to family legend, when my father ran up the stairs and looked at his newborn son, he quipped, he looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president someday.

My mother, a small woman with auburn hair and a sense of optimism that ran as deep as the cosmos, told me that everything in life happened for a purpose. She said all things were part of God's plan, even the most disheartening setbacks, and that in the end everything worked out for the best.

My father was endowed with the gift of blarney and the charm of a leprechaun. No one I ever met could tell a story better than Jack Reagan. But he also believed passionately in the rights of the individual and the working man, and he was suspicious of established authority. He passed along to his sons the belief that all men and women, regardless of their color or religion, were created equal. There was no more grievous sin at our household than a racial slur or other evidence of racial intolerance.

We learned from our parents that individuals determine their own destiny. That is, it's largely their own ambition and hard work that determine their fate in life.

When I was a child, we moved a lot. At one point, I had attended four schools in four years. My father was constantly searching for a better life and I was forever the new kid in school. We moved to Dixon, Illinois when I was nine. All of us have a place to go back to. Dixon is that place for me. Our home on Hennepen Avenue had a small table in the livingroom with a bowl that my mother often filled with popcorn. We gathered there in the evenings.

Reagan speaks about Dixon
During those first years in Dixon, I was a voracious reader, and once I found a fictional hero I liked, I would consume everything I could about him. After reading one Rover Boys book, for example, I wouldn't stop until I'd finished all of them. It was the same thing with Tarzan and Frank (Mirawell) at Yale. I read and reread the stories and I began to dream of myself on a college campus wearing a college jersey, even as a star on the football team. Even though I wasn't especially good at sports in grade school, my childhood dream was to become like those guys in the books.

In a town like Dixon during the early 1920's, the silent movie was still a novelty. Talkies hadn't been invented and television was something you read about in science fiction stories. People had to rely on themselves for entertainment, and at this, my mother excelled. She was the star performer of a group in Dixon that staged what we called readings. Whether it was low comedy or high drama, Nellie really threw herself into a part. Performing, I think, was her first love.

One day she helped me memorize a short speech and persuaded me to present it that evening at a reading. Summoning up my courage, I walked up to the stage, cleared my throat and made my theatrical debut. I don't remember what I said but I'll never forget the response. People laughed and applauded. That was a new experience for me and I liked it. I liked that approval. For a kid suffering childhood pangs of insecurity, the applause was music. I didn't know it then, but in a way when I walked off the stage at night, my life had changed.

I tried out for a student play and then another. By the time I was a senior, I was so addicted to student theatrical productions that you couldn't keep me out of them. I tried hard to understand the characters I played, especially their motivations. The process called empathy is not bad training for someone who goes into politics or any other calling.

Reagan speaks about Lifeguarding
Right around my second year in high school I got one of the best jobs I ever had. I began the first of seven summers working as a lifeguard. I worked seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day for fifteen dollars, later twenty dollars a week. One of the proudest statistics of my life is 77, the number of people I saved during those seven summers.

By my junior year, I had shot up to 5 feet 10 1/2 inches and weighed over 160 pounds. But although I made the varsity football team, by mid-season I was still warming the bench. Then one Saturday morning the coach read off the names for the starting team. I'll never forget it. Right guard, Reagan. Once I got in, I never let the other guy get his position back.

After high school graduation, I was drawn to one college in particular and entered Eureka College when I was 17. By then I stood almost 6 feet 1 and weighed about 175 pounds. My hair was in a crewcut style and parted down the middle like the hair of the comic strip Harold Teen. I wore thick eyeglasses. I took a trunk filled with almost everything I owned and a head full of dreams.

As in a small town, you couldn't remain anonymous at a small college. Everybody gets a chance to shine at something and to build a sense of self confidence. While I didn't play much football that Fall, I did experience another type of combat, my first taste of politics.

In the autumn of 1928, Bert Wilson, the new president, decided to lay off part of the faculty and impose other cuts. We students thought he was doing it in an underhanded way and formed a committee to consider the possibility of calling a strike. I was elected to represent freshmen on the committee and was later chosen to present our committees proposal for a strike. I reviewed how the cutbacks threatened not only the diplomas of upperclassmen but the academic reputation of Eureka. I described how the administration had ignored us when we presented alternative ideas for saving money and how they planned to pull off the coup in secrecy while we were away for a Fall break.

Giving that speech, my first, was as exciting as any I ever gave. For the first time in my life I felt my words reach out and grab an audience, and it was exhilarating.

Despite my preoccupation with extracurricular activities, I'm convinced I got a solid liberal arts education at Eureka, especially in economics. It was a major I chose because I thought one way or another I'd end up dealing with dollars. If not at my father's store, then in some other business.

Early in 1932, with graduation a few months off, I faced the same question that gnaws at all college seniors. What do I do with the rest of my life.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH