- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2016

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - As the limousine quickly rounded the corner of a busy Manhattan street one day in 1987, on its way to a fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he tried to help secure her necklace.

Suddenly, she flew into his side of the backseat, landing in his arms.

“You never saw that, Tim,” first lady Nancy Reagan said to Secret Serviceman Tim McCarthy, who was riding in a seat ahead, after she collided in the backseat with her chief of staff, Jack Courtemanche.

Courtemanche, who has lived in Eugene since 1989, shortly after the two-term Reagan administration ended, recalled that story and several others on Monday, the day after Nancy Reagan’s death at age 94 in Los Angeles.

“That was just her sense of humor,” Courtemanche, who turns 81 on Wednesday, said about the limousine incident.

Courtemanche came home to Oregon for good 27 years ago to serve as president of Country Coach, the former RV manufacturer in Junction City, from 1989 to 2002.

But he served as Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff from 1986 to 1989, after having served her husband, President Ronald Reagan, as a deputy assistant and in other capacities during the 40th president’s first term.

While “outsiders” may have regarded Nancy Reagan as distant and controlling, Courtemanche said he “always found her very warm, very outgoing and very, very much in love with the president.”

Courtemanche grew up a farm boy in McMinnville in the 1940s and attended the University of Oregon for a couple of years in the mid-‘50s. He couldn’t have guessed then that he would one day have a front-row seat to Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs and quirky reliance on astrology, or that he would help her entertain the likes of Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, during the materialistic and Cold War-simmering 1980s.

His duties included managing all of Nancy Reagan’s correspondence and projects, including her youth-focused “Just Say No” campaign to rid the nation of illegal drug use.

He also was in charge of entertainment at the White House, including state dinners, and was by her side everywhere she traveled.

But it wasn’t a job he initially accepted with enthusiasm.

During his years serving President Reagan, who died at age 93 in 2004 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Courtemanche mainly handled White House conferences on productivity and small-business development, traveling the nation and meeting with academics and business and labor leaders.

In 1986, during Reagan’s second term, longtime Reagan aide Michael Deaver called Courtemanche and said: “Mrs. Reagan wants to talk to you.”

Courtemanche met with Deaver and the first lady in a White House sitting room.

She asked Courtemanche to be her chief of staff. She trusted him, Nancy Reagan said.

Before he could give a final answer, President Reagan walked into the room, kissed his wife and said: “Thanks so much for agreeing to be Mrs. Reagan’s chief of staff,” Courtemanche recalled.

“I hadn’t agreed to anything yet!” he said with a laugh on Monday, sitting in his office on the second floor of his northeast Eugene home, where the walls are covered with photos of himself and his wife, Jo, with the Reagans.

A fourth-generation Oregonian whose Republican family owned a farming operation, hardware store and truck dealerships in Yamhill County, Courtemanche began a successful business career in Eugene in the mid-‘50s - after dropping out of the UO - selling Peterbilt diesel trucks.

In the ‘60s, he and Jo and their six children moved to Los Angeles, where he took over the Peterbilt outlet there, growing it into the world’s largest truck distributorship.

After several other successful business ventures, Courtemanche got the political itch after word spread that the Republican National Committee was trying to persuade Ronald Reagan, California’s governor from 1967 to 1975, to challenge incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency.

“I really liked the job he had done as governor,” Courtemanche said. “I thought I’d really like to see him become president, so I basically marched in off the street and volunteered.”

Reagan, of course, lost the nomination to Ford, who would lose the November 1976 general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

But in 1980, Ronald Reagan personally asked Courtemanche to be his California finance campaign manager.

Initially, still busy with his latest business venture - an L.A. school bus and firetruck manufacturer - Courtemanche did not join President Reagan’s first-term staff.

It was only in the weeks after the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on the president’s life that Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, called Courtemanche and asked him to reconsider joining the team.

He began on June 1, six years after first meeting Nancy Reagan at the Reagans’ Bel Air estate.

He was picking up the future president to drive him to a speech, during his first presidential campaign, and Nancy Reagan came out in her bathrobe to kiss her husband goodbye.

“He kept waving to her, and she kept waving to him” as they drove away, Courtemanche recalled. “And he said, ‘This may seem strange, but we’ve always had a little tradition to wave to each other when we say goodbye for as long as we can see each other.’”

Courtemanche described the two former actors’ relationship as one of “true love.”

And he was witness to her vehement backing of him at all costs, sometimes even to her own reputation.

“She had tremendous worries after the president was shot, and really wanted good protection for him all the time,” Courtemanche said. “And she had been in touch with a lady astrologer in San Francisco, and she would have different conversations with her about whether it was a good day of the week or a good place (for President Reagan) to be.”

Nancy Reagan’s habit of relying on astrologer Joan Quigley’s readings to help set the president’s schedule was revealed in former Reagan Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s 1988 memoir, who some believed constituted literary revenge for the first lady’s part in forcing Regan out after the Iran-Contra arms scandal during Ronald Reagan’s second term.

Courtemanche said more was made of that than was actually the case, but did say of Regan and Nancy Reagan: “They really did not have a good relationship, let’s just put it that way.”

During his final moments in the White House, on Jan. 20, 1989, Courtemanche ascended to the second floor to escort the Reagans out.

“It’s going to be a few minutes, because she wants to see all of the rooms one last time,” President Reagan told Courtemanche, before finally adding: “Nancy, Jack is here. It’s time to go.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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