- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NORTHPORT, Ala. (AP) - Some people find it awkward to be watched while they eat. On Oct. 15, 1984, Charles Patterson ate his McDonald’s meal with cameras in his face and microphones dangling above his head. Then he watched himself on every major news channel that night.

The cameras weren’t there for him. They were there for the man eating shoulder-to-shoulder with Patterson: President Ronald Reagan.

“I remember, when I picked up a French fry and brought it to my mouth, it seemed to be shaking,” Patterson said of his spontaneous meal with the 40th president. “It was a nerve-wracking experience for a 23-year-old kid.”

Thirty years ago today, Patterson, then a senior at the University of Alabama, listened to Reagan give a speech at what was then Memorial Coliseum a few weeks before the president was re-elected to a second term in office. Minutes later, Patterson and Reagan were at the Northport McDonald’s for a 20-minute meal before the president boarded a flight to Georgia.

Wanting to watch Air Force One take flight from the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, Patterson said he drove toward Northport after the speech only to find the terminal blocked. Not quite giving up, he found a seat at McDonald’s and sat down to eat lunch facing McFarland Boulevard in hopes of catching a glimpse of Reagan’s motorcade.

Patterson said he was shocked when the motorcade pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot and Reagan was announced at the door because it was unheard of for presidents to eat at fast-food restaurants back then.

“He stopped at the door, he and an aide kind of huddled up, and he pointed at me,” Patterson said. “The aide walked over to me and said ‘The president would like to have lunch with you.’ Who’s going to turn that down?”

As Reagan ate his Big Mac and fries and drank his sweet tea, Patterson said they talked about former University of Alabama football coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and how, as the president, Reagan hadn’t been able to eat fast food in a long time. He said Reagan asked him what he studied in school - industrial management - and if he was a Republican.

Patterson said he turned 18 in 1980 and voted for Reagan that year, and eating with him affirmed his decision to vote for Reagan again.

“He is, in my opinion, the best president this country has had,” Patterson said. “I was definitely going to vote for him in 1984.”

Although 30 years have passed, Patterson, who works as demand manager at PPG Industries in the Huntsville area, said he is still known as the guy who ate with President Reagan at McDonald’s.

The original McDonald’s was torn down when Rick Hanna purchased the restaurant from Tom Goeman in 1995, but the latest restaurant has a glass encasement with a plaque stating the date Reagan ate there and what he ordered, a bust of Reagan and a picture of him eating his Big Mac.

Hanna said the original owner kept the table Reagan and Patterson ate at.

“When I decided to tear down the building, a lot of people were upset,” Hanna said. “We decided to put (the picture, bust and plaque) in. It’s kind of a memorial to Ronald Reagan.”

Reagan died in 2004.

Patterson said he stops by the restaurant sometimes when he is in town, but he is reminded of that day more so by the many pictures he has hanging on his walls in his home and at his office.

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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