Printer Friendly

The unflappable Nelle Reagan.

THE UNFLAPPABLE NELLE REAGAN

She called the future President of the United States "Ronnie' and "Dutch.' But mothers can get away with things like that.

Nelle Wilson Reagan was a spunky, Scotch-Irish woman whose philosophy of self-determination left a mighty impact on many people, including the younger of her two sons, the 40th President of the United States. Nelle believed that no matter what a person had done, he should be given the chance to pick himself up again.

Her friends from the Hollywood Beverly Christian Church in Los Angeles, where she worshiped from 1937 until her death in 1962, still delight in spinning yarns about this tiny, auburn-haired, blue-eyed optimist.

"She made weekly visits to the Lincoln Heights jail to meet with the prisoners, encouraging them to rebuild their lives,' says Thelma Gosney, a longtime friend and fellow church member of Mrs. Reagan's. "Soon after their release, some of the former inmates stopped by her apartment on Phyllis Avenue just to say, "Thank you for caring.'' Her sons reportedly worried about her safety when they learned about these visits.

In his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, Ronald Reagan described his mother as a "natural, practical do-gooder.' "She was all that and more,' says Mrs. Cleveland Kleinhauer, the widow of Mrs. Reagan's longtime pastor at the Hollywood church. "She was a genuinely good woman who cared for those who needed someone to talk to. You might say she showered love on those whom society wanted to forget.'

In addition to her visits to the prison, Mrs. Reagan made weekly trips to the Olive View Tuberculosis Sanatarium with gifts of food, candy, pens and pencils for patients. Mostly, however, her visits encouraged the sick to maintain hope and to do all they could to help the doctors cure them.

Nelle Reagan cared for those who shared her home as she had for the downtrodden in prisons and in hospitals. Her husband, John Edward Reagan, was a tall, handsome Irishman whose outward confidence belied the torment of a man with an uncontrollable weakness.

The young Ronald Reagan discovered firsthand what his mother had already endured for years. One night after playing basketball with his friends, 11-year-old Ronald returned home to find his father lying drunk and unconscious, flat on his back on the front porch. Smelling the unmistakable odor of cheap whiskey, the boy grabbed a fistful of his father's overcoat, dragged him inside and managed to get him safely into bed.

Later that evening, Nelle spoke heart-to-heart with Ronald and his older brother, Neil. "We should love and help your father,' she said, "and never condemn him for something that is beyond his control.' Her understanding, coupled with John Reagan's mostly sober, hard-working life, convinced young Ronald--he never spoke ill of his father.

John Reagan earned no more than $55 a week as a shoe salesman, but the family never sought or accepted outside assistance. Nelle was always there, offering hope and encouragement. When her husband lost his job in the middle of the Depression and the months ahead looked bleak, Nelle Reagan reassured her sons with a promise: "The Lord will provide.'

The Lord provided the Reagans with decidedly unglamorous opportunities to earn money. Her friends at church tell of how Nelle, in order to augment the family income, became a seamstress in a dress shop for $14 a week. "The boys learned from childhood that if they had a need, it was up to each individual to fill that need for himself,' says another family friend. Nelle also taught them to help others whenever they saw a need.

Dorothy Ketcham of Los Angeles knew Mrs. Reagan as well as anyone. "We know why the President is the kind of man he is,' she says. "Because of Nelle's refusal to accept handouts, we're not surprised at her son's suspicion of any "big brother' role for the federal government.'

Ronald Reagan's creed of "rugged individualism,' undoubtedly rooted in his mother's actions during these financially troubled years, was only one legacy he received from her: Nelle gave her son his first acting lessons.

Her favorite escape from the gnawing problems of the day was performing for her local church and community theatrical groups. "She was the "dean of dramatic recitals for the countryside,'' wrote Ronald Reagan in his autobiography. Whether reciting passages from melodramas such as East Lynne or interpreting poetry, she threw herself into the roles "with the zest of a frustrated actress.' Her enthusiasm for the stage rubbed off on her son, who often joined her in church pageants--reluctantly at first, because it pried him away from sports. The first step on the road to Hollywood had been taken.

Nelle Wilson Reagan died on July 25, 1962, one day after her 76th birthday. At her funeral, held in the sancturary of the church she loved so much, her sons and close friends paid their tearful last respects to this spry soul who had touched so many lives.

The spirit of Nelle Reagan may be imagined gazing down on the whole affair from the angels' point of view and chiding her son: "Ronnie, stop that this very instant. You've got no time to waste feeling sorry for me. Besides, you have plenty of work ahead of you.'

If he heard her, Ronald Reagan didn't argue the point. Mothers can get away with things like that.

Photo: Nelle and John Edward with their sons, Neil and Ronald, in a Reagan family portrait, around 1914. Ronald is the one leaning slightly to his left.

Photo: Social gatherings were more lively and community projects more successful with the presence of Nelle Reagan. In this church group she sits second from the left.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1985
Words:949
Previous Article:Get set for digital TV.
Next Article:Money talk.
Topics:


Related Articles
MEDICAL CENTER HONORS ACTIVIST.
AUTO DEALER HONORED BY FOUNDATION.
PARTY LINES : FRIENDS GO EASY ON HONOREE.
COMMUNITY NEWS : BUSINESSMAN RECEIVES AWARD FOR VOLUNTEERISM, COMMITMENT.
HONOREE CALLED DESERVING : LIFELONG VOLUNTEER TO GET ANNUAL AWARD.
VETERAN VOLUNTEER BUD BROWN GETS REAGAN AWARD.
WOODEN KEEPS LOVE OF HIS LIFE UPDATED.
Reagan catfood dinner.
All the presidents' moms.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters