- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

As soon as she heard the news Saturday afternoon — during a mentoring session with children at her church in Chesterfield, Va., — Carol Williams knew she had to pay her respects to Ronald Reagan in person. She would come to Washington.

“At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be here,” said Mrs. Williams, who arrived at the Capitol at 5 a.m. yesterday with her teenage daughter and niece, taking her place as the first in line for the public viewing of the casket in the Capitol Rotunda. “I just needed to know when and where to go.”

Like thousands of other mourners who made the pilgrimage to participate in the nation’s first state funeral ceremonies in three decades, Mrs. Williams was prepared to wait as long as it took — in this case, 16 hours — in sweltering heat and humidity for her turn to walk past the flag-draped casket.

“This is a man who exemplified — in the face of what became political correctness — what our forefathers had in mind, what America was supposed to be about,” Mrs. Williams, 49, said. “He was a man who exemplified family values.”

By 11 a.m., three dozen people stood behind her, and by early evening, a line of thousands snaked across the lawn in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, despite the long, hot wait. The line wasn’t scheduled to even begin moving up to the Capitol until about 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets to see the funeral procession with a horse-drawn gun carriage carrying the casket containing the former president’s remains slowly through the city. Following the casket was a riderless black horse, boots reversed in the stirrups, a symbol of the loss of a leader.

Mr. Reagan’s widow, Nancy, was warmly applauded by the crowd when she exited her limousine in front of the White House to watch her husband’s casket being moved from the hearse to the gun carriage.

“God bless you, Nancy,” shouted someone in the crowd, sparking another burst of clapping.

The sidewalks thrummed throughout the day with the steady low hum of conversation, punctuated by occasional outbursts of applause, cheering and whistles of appreciation for the military bands or the appearance of notables. But the throng fell silent as the horse-drawn gun carriage slowly paraded into view.

As the casket passed, the only sound was the light whirring of cameras as a galaxy of flashbulbs sparkled across the crowd.

At the public viewing line, a spirit of camaraderie developed among those standing together for hours. Earlier, the somber but excited crowd was briefly dispersed when police evacuated the Capitol because of a security threat.

A Kentucky State Police aircraft carrying that state’s governor entered the restricted airspace of the Capitol. The incident quickly was resolved, and Mrs. Williams and most of the other people near the front of the line regained their places. Some weren’t so lucky.

“When we got back, there were some people standing where they hadn’t been before,” said Charlotte Rosenberg, 52, of Middleburg, Va. “I guess they left their manners at home.”

The people in line came from across the country to wait their turn to honor the former president. Some wore T-shirts and shorts. Others dressed in suits and ties, despite temperatures in the 90s.

Derace Owens, 60, came by airplane from Tyler, Texas, and stood in line wearing a white cowboy hat. His thin dark tie was held in place with tie tacks shaped like tiny handcuffs.

“I was already proud of America. But his leadership inspired me and made me want to work much harder for the beliefs we all hold as Americans and still do,” said Mr. Owens, a security worker and former Army staff sergeant who served in the Vietnam War.

He said Mr. Reagan instilled in people the core American ideals of “God, family, country and trying to do the best at what you do — in that order.”

Patrick Schrecongost, 38, said when he glimpsed the casket, he would be reflecting on his service in the Navy when Mr. Reagan was commander in chief.

“I was inspired by President Reagan, and I left for the Navy 20 years ago Saturday,” said Mr. Schrecongost, who served as a machinist mate aboard the USS Camden. “I was a patriot before I knew of Reagan and my father was a Marine, but President Reagan sealed the deal.”

Michael Schaedler drove 11 hours from Augusta, Maine, to join the line. He said he considered Mr. Reagan the greatest American president since Abraham Lincoln. But “the Gipper” and Mrs. Reagan also touched his life in a personal way with their antidrug message.

“I was a drug addict,” said Mr. Schaedler, a 46-year-old property manager who has been clean for 13 years and now counsels other recovering addicts. He said when he first tried to kick the drug habit, he wrote a letter Mr. Reagan and the president responded — a gesture that surprised and inspired Mr. Schaedler, he said.

Another of the former president’s many pen pals, Peter Maerkel came from Danielson, Conn., with his three children. Mr. Maerkel began his correspondence with the president as a high school freshman in 1981.

“He was the only president I ever felt the need to write, and he responded pretty quickly,” Mr. Maerkel, 37, said. He hoisted his son, 9-year-old Timothy, to his shoulders as the former president’s casket passed.

“He was a believer in all people. He was not just a great president, but a great human being. … He made me a better American.”

Frank Petrignani, Deb McCown and Tarron Lively contributed to this report.

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