Sunday, June 5, 2005

A year has passed since former President Ronald Reagan died, leaving America to ponder both the man and his legacy. But Mr. Reagan has not faded into the historical shadows, and the nation’s heart is still with him.

“I am, as I speak, on my way to my father’s grave,” said Michael Reagan, the president’s elder son, speaking by cell phone, his words punctuated by the sounds of a California highway. “And you know, in the past year I’ve found out anew that people still love my dad — because he loved them.”

The younger Reagan was intent on spending some private time Friday at the hilltop burial site of his father, located on the rolling grounds of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, some 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Few can fault a son seeking some quiet solace beforehand. But today belongs to the public.

The library is expecting a sizable crowd for a commemorative ceremony that will mark the exact moment of Mr. Reagan’s passing — 1:05 p.m., June 5, 2004 — at the age of 93. It prompted a week’s worth of formal recognitions, intense press coverage and a public sense that an era had passed.

Nancy Reagan will not attend the events today. The president’s wife of 52 years will “spend the day quietly, and with family,” library spokeswoman Melissa Giller said.

Mr. Reagan had some thoughts about how he wanted to be remembered. “Whatever else history says about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence, rather than your doubts,” Mr. Reagan told the nation in 1992. “My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.”

Every visitor to the Reagan library today will receive a small American flag. During the ceremony, there will be a moment of silence, then all will place their flags near the grave site. Taps will be played, and a California oak tree will be planted nearby.

“People get very emotional here, still. Ronald Reagan just hasn’t gone out of their hearts yet. And, honestly, we like to think he is watching over us from that hilltop,” Miss Giller said.

On the Reagan ranch — affectionately known as the “Western White House” back in the day — it will be a quiet day, as directed by Ron Robinson, president of the Young America’s Foundation, the Virginia-based group that took over management of Mr. Reagan’s beloved acreage outside Santa Barbara, Calif., seven years ago. It is now used as a gathering spot for youthful Reagan scholars.

“I believe President Reagan would approve that we’re honoring Sunday as a day of rest,” Mr. Robinson said. “Those who knew him personally, of course, don’t want to let him go. In the public, we have seen a huge, remarkable interest in Mr. Reagan. It really continues unabated. Young people in particular see a freshness about his ideas, and they can see his policies still affect our country. That really resonates with them.”

Mr. Reagan still resonates in his birthplace, as well. The Illinois General Assembly approved a 15-city Ronald Reagan Trail tour in 1999 that celebrates, organizers say, the Gipper’s unabashed “hometown values,” not to mention his home turf. A 5-kilometer Ronald Reagan Race in July will host more than 500 runners in Dixon, his boyhood home.

In the meantime, Michael Reagan fondly remembers his dad.

He credits his father with helping him renew his Christian faith. He recalls the twinkle in his father’s eye, his kindness and his patriotism — which will be aptly reflected today during a wreath-laying ceremony aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a 1,092-foot nuclear-powered aircraft carrier currently docked in San Diego.

“I pray that as America reflects on the passing of my dad, they will remember a man of integrity, conviction and good humor who changed America and the world for the better. He would modestly say the credit goes to others, but I believe the credit is his,” Mr. Reagan said.

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