Love for America. The dignity of work. Empathy for others. Intolerance for bigotry. Faith in God’s Divine Plan. Our 40th President lived his values, and his Midwest upbringing shaped them.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in an apartment above the First National Bank of Tampico, Illinois. He was the second-born son of Jack and Nelle Reagan.
Jack was skilled as a salesman, but his alcoholism often cost him work. The Reagans moved around multiple times until ultimately settling in Dixon. Over the years, they rented five different homes—including one now owned and operated by Young America’s Foundation (YAF). I was there last week, and it reminded me of the early influences on Reagan’s life.
In his farewell address from the Oval Office, President Reagan called for “an informed patriotism.” He spoke of growing up and being taught “what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.”
The foundation of his belief in the dignity of work was formed during his early years. In 1925, he got his first summer job digging foundations and shingling roofs for a construction company. The work was tough for the fourteen-year-old. He worked ten-hour days, six days a week. For the next seven summers, he worked as a lifeguard on the Rock River—saving 77 lives.
Years later, Ronald Reagan worked on the adobe home at Rancho del Cielo. He also built his fences there out of old telephone poles. He credited his first job for his skills on these building projects.
Nelle Reagan had a major impact on her youngest son’s life. She taught etiquette courses to supplement the family income, including lessons in public speaking and proper manners. The “Great Communicator” likely began listening to his mother teach others to do the same.
Mr. Reagan’s mother served the local poor, and in return, she asked for a teacup and saucer—they did not have to match. Her request was motivated by the desire for each individual to keep their dignity; rather than getting a handout, she gave them a hand up. Upon receiving the cup and saucer, she would place them in the cabinet where she would pray for their family when she had a spare moment.
Young Ronald Reagan and his brother read “That Printer of Udell’s.” After finishing the book, both boys told their mother they wanted to be baptized at First Christian Church, where Mrs. Reagan was a Sunday School teacher.
The themes of the book stuck with the President throughout his life. One emphasized Christians must do more than attend church on Sunday. The other was that welfare ought to be provided by individuals and private organizations rather than the government.
Growing up, it was around the dinner table that Mr. Ronald learned from his parents about the importance of treating others as individuals. Both Jack and Nelle strongly believed in respect for the individual and religious and racial tolerance.
Jack, the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants, grew up in an era in which anti-Irish and anti-Catholic discrimination were prevalent. The President said in “Where is the Rest of Me” that his father “believed literally that all men were created equal and that the man’s own ambitions determined what happened to him after that.”
In “An American Life,” Reagan wrote how his mother “always taught us: ‘Treat thy neighbor as you would want your neighbor to treat you,’ and ‘Judge everyone by how they act, not what they are.’” His parents encouraged them to bring home black friends and treat them as equals and respect the religious views of others.
The Reagans always kept a spare bedroom open. Nelle worked in a prison ministry, and often people just getting out would stay there until they found a place of their own. When Ronald Reagan was in college, his team came and stayed overnight at a local hotel. Two of the black players were not welcome, so he brought them home. Reagan later wrote of his mother: “She was absolutely color-blind when it came to racial matters; these fellows were just two of my friends. That was the way she and Jack had always raised my brother and me.”
Nelle, in particular, believed that everything happened for a reason. A Divine Plan governed all. This sense of optimism and trust in God’s plan were key ideas that Nelle passed on to Ronald.
Despite his father’s challenges with alcoholism, Ronald Reagan did not let it paralyze him. It was simply part of God’s Divine Plan. Ultimately, it led them to Dixon, where his faith and Midwestern values would shape his character. It also drew him closer to his mother and to her faith which was a constant comfort to him throughout his life. God was always with him, no matter what the circumstances.
I am grateful for the lessons learned by Ronald Reagan in the Midwestern town of Dixon. It helped shape the values of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.
• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him @ScottWalker.