Ronald Reagan was a man of second — and third — acts. But if you want to know about the core of the man, I recommend taking a trip to his alma mater, Eureka College, out on the rolling plains of Illinois.
Yes, there’s the Reagan Presidential Library atop a hill in Simi Valley (I’ve visited there too), but the necessary drive through anodyne California upscale housing developments can resemble a Saturday trip to the mall. Not so with a journey to Eureka, where the closest big city (Chicago) is 135 miles away. Once past the last of Chicagoland’s exurbs, the landscape changes into Midwest farmland, fields stretching to the horizon, dotted by houses, barns, and grain elevators.
Perhaps the teenaged Reagan took comfort in the familiarity of the countryside, as he was moving from one small Illinois plains town, Dixon, to another. Entering college life also may have been a natural transition; Eureka College was (and remains) an institution of the Disciples of Christ denomination. Reagan was baptized and his mother taught Sunday school at the Disciples church in Dixon, and his minister helped to get him admitted to Eureka.
Eureka College has a strong egalitarian tradition, going back to its abolitionist roots. (During Reagan’s time, Eureka was unusual for being both co-ed and integrated.) Thus, Reagan, although a “needy” scholarship student who worked as a busboy to make ends meet, could assume a leadership role almost immediately (more about that in a moment).
To understand the importance of this, you need only review the college experience of Richard Nixon, Reagan’s contemporary. Like Reagan, Nixon attended a small college (Whittier) of his family’s denomination (Quaker) located near his hometown. However, despite his intelligence and hard work, his family’s poverty made Nixon the outsider looking in, as he was excluded from the “in” student clubs. Thus, it’s easy to trace the roots of one president’s famous optimism and another’s equally famous pessimism to their respective college days.
Appropriate for an alumnus who became a film actor, Eureka looks like a college from a Hollywood set, with leafy trees and old brick buildings. One of those buildings, “The Chapel,” was the setting for what may have been the most formative event in the young Reagan’s life.
It was November 1928, and Reagan had been at Eureka for only a few months, when his fellow students called upon him to address a rally at The Chapel in protest of the college’s proposed cuts in classes and instructors. Most remarkably, the protest centered around the college’s seniors, who were concerned they weren’t going to graduate on time — yet it was a freshman who spoke for them.
Those Eureka students of 1928 must have discerned an extraordinary talent in Ronald Reagan that the rest of us saw decades later — an ability to lead. Clearly, his ability to communicate sprang from something much deeper than Hollywood training in vocal mechanics.
In Eureka, where the life of Reagan the leader began, it is easy to imagine a handsome young man stepping up to speak to his colleagues (did he, even for a moment, wonder “why me?”), with the administration and faculty keeping a close watch on the proceedings.
On that November day in 1928, Reagan got a first-hand lesson in the transformative power of leadership, as, indeed, the students went on a brief strike, and the college administration rearranged things so the seniors would graduate on time.
Reagan’s college career never suffered from this early incident of activism, another testament to Eureka’s egalitarianism. In fact, a few years later, as a Eureka junior, he participated in a drama competition at Northwestern University in Chicago, where the theater professors were so impressed by his performance they suggested he take up acting as a career. We know the rest of the story.
For those interested in historical artifacts, the college has an impressive collection of Reagan memorabilia, displayed in a low-key style. It has a Reagan Peace Garden too, to commemorate his 1982 START speech given at Eureka, in which he challenged the Soviet Union to reduce its nuclear arsenal.
But to my mind, no amount of videotape or bits of paper can compare to a first-hand experience of the atmospherics of a little college on the wide open Illinois plains where a life, and a world, were transformed.
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.