Ronald Reagan and Eureka College

"The most valuable lesson I learned at Eureka is that every individual makes a difference." —Ronald Reagan

It may sound like hyperbole to state that never was a U.S. president so intimately bound with his college, but in the case of Ronald Wilson Reagan and Eureka College, there can be no overstatement. As the only president born, raised and educated in Illinois, Reagan was truly forged as an Illinoisan and Midwesterner, while Eureka College polished him. Reagan’s strength was in his roots, which he never forgot, whether as sports announcer, movie star, union leader, governor, president, husband or father.

On the Road to Eureka
Born in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911 and raised in towns throughout northern and central Illinois, Reagan was always on the move, looking for gainful employment with his father, Jack; mother, Nelle; and brother, John “Neil.” The family rented everywhere they went and did not own their first home until the young movie star bought one for his parents in the late 1930s. Young Ronald spent the largest chunk of his formative years in Dixon, where he attended church with his mother at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), led by the Reverend Benjamin Cleaver.

Jack Reagan was an alcoholic, which required the young Reagan boys to take on more mature roles at earlier ages, and there is a sense that Reagan looked to other men, such as Rev. Cleaver, as mentors and father figures since he did not have a full-time father at home. The real parental figure in his life was the intelligent, determined Nelle Reagan. It is no surprise, then, that Reagan would always be drawn to powerful, independent women.

Rev. Cleaver’s youngest daughter, Margaret, was Reagan’s love and was heading to Eureka in the fall of 1928 for her freshman year. As the Cleavers began Margaret’s move to Eureka, Reagan was more than happy to assist, as he had little or no prospects for a job and never realistically dreamed of attending college. Though a driving force for Reagan to come to Eureka was love—and he was devoted to that particular love all four years—he must have been deeply influenced to dream of a college education by Rev. Cleaver, with whom he exchanged correspondence until Cleaver’s death in 1975. In fact, after moving Margaret into her dormitory, the Cleavers encouraged Ronald to speak with Admissions about attending EC himself. He got in, received a needy student scholarship—allowing him to defer some of his bills until after graduation—and found a job cleaning at the TKE Fraternity house.

Four Years in Utopia
It is important to place Reagan into the historical and cultural context of Eureka College—a college steeped in a tradition of servant leadership. Whereas in Dixon, Reagan only heard of the importance of the equality of all people and education as a way to improve oneself, at Eureka, he was immersed in it. The College was founded by leaders who envisioned a better society and believed they had the keys to achieving that utopia. The Disciples of Christ believed strongly in the equality of sexes and an accessible nonsectarian education, in the context that one needs both faith and reason without either interfering with the other.

As a consequence, Eureka, founded by staunch abolitionists, was the first college in Illinois and third in the nation to accept men and women on an equal basis. The 1931 yearbook pictures a photogenic Ronald Reagan on the same page as Willie Sue Smith, an African-American woman from Houston—and the last surviving member of the Eureka Class of ‘32. The College had racially integrated athletic teams that faced much prejudice as they traveled throughout the Midwest. Eureka had a long history of graduating highly educated women—white and black—at a time when less than one percent of college graduates in the U.S. were women.

And here was Reagan, amid a swath of different racial and social groups, with endless opportunities to become involved. He dove in headfirst and engaged with basically every club and organization of which Margaret became a member, and more. Reagan was the type who didn’t just join an organization, but became involved in every aspect of the group—the eager kid in the front row. That eager kid was about to run head-on into a defining life moment just a few months after college began.

Freshman Year “Strike Speech”
During the late 1920s, as the economy began to sour, Eureka College faced financial challenges and began to make cuts in classes and instructors. Some of these cuts particularly worried seniors, who were concerned that the classes they needed to graduate on time would not be offered. Students decided to hold a rally, which has become known as the “Student Strike,” and Reagan, the young freshman, was chosen to be the student voice at the rally.

I once asked Howard Short, who had been a senior in the fall of 1928, why a freshman was chosen for this daunting responsibility. He chuckled and noted, “There was just something special about the kid—a look in his eyes. He believed, and he made you believe.” Reagan made his speech on stage on the second floor of the Chapel and students did indeed go on strike for a short time. Arrangements were made, the seniors graduated on time, and “Dutch” Reagan, the freshman, became a “senior” in status almost immediately. This stamp of approval from his peers helped encourage the creation of The Great Communicator.

Reagan the Recruiter
Even with the successes of freshman year, Reagan was worried about the costs of college, as his dishwashing job would be passed on to a new student. Yet at the same time, he was also heavily recruiting his older brother, Neil, to give up his job at the cement plant in Dixon and attend college at Eureka.

Reagan’s uncertainty about returning to EC was sensed by Coach Ralph McKinzie, who assured him that his commitment to the football team would pay off and ushered him back into the financial aid office, where scholarships were renewed. Reagan found a new job his sophomore year as a dishwasher for college food service, located in the women’s dormitory, and would later joke, “It was the best job I ever had.” Neil made the move to Eureka College, took up Reagan’s old job in the fraternity, joined the football team and graduated from Eureka in 1933. 

Athletics were a core component of Reagan’s college years. He was a member of the track team his freshman year, a four-year member of the swim team, and head cheerleader for basketball. Swimming may have come naturally to him, but Reagan’s true love was football—in which he lettered for three years. Coach McKinzie was legendary, an EC graduate, and the man whom Reagan addressed as “Sir” when he visited the White House.

A Transformational Junior Year
A story that transcends football and reaches to the roots of Eureka College occurred during Reagan’s junior year. One of Reagan’s closest friends was William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt, who went on to chair several university chemistry departments. In the fall of 1930, Burghardt was one of two African Americans on Eureka’s Red Devil football team when it was traveling through Dixon on the way to play Elmhurst College.

When the tavern owner in Dixon said they could not eat or stay there because there were blacks on the team, Reagan suggested to Coach McKinzie that he and his four team members go to his parent’s home, where they would be fed and spend the night, and meet up with the rest of the team the next day. That is exactly what happened. Certainly, facing racism was a common occurrence for the College’s integrated teams, yet, for Reagan and those team members, it was a defining moment. Years later as president, Reagan would tell this story to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, allowing him to see the man behind the politician.

Junior year held even more direction for young Reagan. In his time at EC, Reagan performed in 14 theatrical productions, but Aria da Capo, which was entered in a play competition at Northwestern University, would change his life. Reagan was cast in the role of The Shepherd; the production won rave reviews, and Reagan himself won an acting award for his portrayal. Better yet, Northwestern theatre professors took him aside and encouraged him to pursue training in theatrical performance. But where could Reagan’s blue-collar roots, his love of athletics and theatre possibly take him?

‘Neath the Elms
At the beginning of his senior year, Reagan began his term as president of Student Senate, having been first elected during his junior year. He had been an average student, but committed himself to each activity he joined and had made a mark in athletics, theatre and student government. Now, as Reagan pledged himself to his love, Margaret, he also dedicated himself to the College and the organizations he loved, with little thought about where life would lead after graduation. Little did he know that both he and Margaret would move on; just more than a year later, he would be surprised to hear that she had become engaged to another.

Academically, Reagan’s major area of study was economics and sociology, in which he received his degree in 1932. This element has been overshadowed in history, yet, it had a powerful intellectual impact on Reagan. Eureka College taught economics and sociology as a joint degree purposefully, reflecting the College’s goals of “the mutual development of intellect and character.” The servant leadership focus of the founders still pervaded the culture and curriculum of Eureka College. In Reagan’s autobiography, he states, “One of the first things I found out about my particular college was that, because of its size, we assumed a lot of assignments. Most of the time, we took a whole host of leadership roles simply because there was no one else to do it. It was my first taste of stepping forward and assuming responsibility for more than my own life, and I never forgot it."

Returning Red Devil
After his brief career in sports announcing led to a job as a contract actor, Reagan returned to Eureka College 12 “official” times, beginning in 1941, and served three six-year terms on the College's Board of Trustees. Some highlights:

1947—Eureka Pumpkin Festival. The pumpkin canning factory made Eureka the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” and spawned the annual festival until it moved in the early 1960s. Reagan returned as a major movie star and Grand Marshal of the parade, riding a Palomino pony down Main Street. Records show nearly 50,000 in attendance in a town with a population of about 2,500.

1957—Honorary Doctorate. The College honored Reagan for his dedication to his alma mater, his career in movies and television, and accomplishments as president of the Screen Actors Guild. This was when Reagan first quipped, “I thought my first degree was honorary!”

1967—Dedication of Melick Library. Having been elected governor of California, Reagan became a major spokesperson for the Republican Party. Many believed that he would announce his candidacy for president, which brought international attention to the campus.

1970—Dedication of the Reagan Physical Education Center. Named for the brothers Neil and Ronald, who spoke of the importance of athletics to personal development and leadership training.

1980—Campaign Visit. On the eve of the election, this visit was a “coming home;” Reagan spoke of the importance of young people making a difference in the world.

1982—The Eureka Speech. Reagan chose the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Eureka and spoke at the May commencement to introduce the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). It is famously known as “The Eureka Speech,” which many consider the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

1984—Distinguished Speaker Series. Reagan delivered a major policy address to kick off Time magazine's Distinguished Speakers Series, in which he reaffirmed his determination to reach agreements with Moscow on reducing the size of the two superpowers' nuclear arsenals.

1992—Last Campus Visit. At the 60th anniversary of his graduation, Reagan gave the commencement speech in which he stated "In four short years you blink and college is gone. You go to class, you study hard—even pulling an occasional all-nighter. You struggle through ‘Western Civilization and Culture,’ you meet your friends at ‘The Outpost’ for a few beers. Some of you join fraternities and sororities, you fall in and out of love, you cheer for the Red Devils and before you know it, you're in cap and gown. It's hard to believe it happens so fast, but it does…My young friends, savor these moments. Keep the memories close to your heart.’"

Impact of an Ideal Alum
The Reagan legacy is palpable at Eureka College. President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, served on the Board of Trustees until her death in 2001, Michael Reagan recently finished a term, and Nancy Reagan was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2010, while Ronald Prescott Reagan has also visited campus. The legacy lives on in a number of ways:

Ronald W. Reagan Leadership Program. The only leadership program begun at an alma mater by a sitting U.S. President, it is meant to prepare students for a life of service and help them find their own voice as leaders.

Ronald Reagan Museum. Of the 10,000 items in the collection, over 90 percent were sent to the College by Reagan himself.

Reagan Peace Garden. Dedicated to the alum who gave “the Eureka Speech,” the garden includes a bust of a smiling Ronald Reagan and a portion of the Berlin Wall.

Ronald Reagan Day. Begun in 2008 to celebrate Reagan’s legacy, Honorary Ronald Reagan Fellows include Attorney General Edwin Meese and President Mikhail Gorbachev.

2011 Centennial and Beyond
Beyond Reagan’s financial support, this EC alum brought attention to a little school with a big history that embodies the archetypal story of a kid telling his parents that he is going to be president someday. Reagan was the poor kid who grew up during the Depression and made it to college at a time when less than seven percent of the population attended, all while staying true to the Eureka College core value of servant leadership. Reagan has become Eureka College’s grandfather and the College his living legacy. iBi

Dr. Brian Sajko is the founding curator of the Ronald Reagan Museum
at Eureka College. This is an abridged version of an article that will appear in the January 2011 issue of Illinois Heritage magazine, a publication of the Illinois State Historical Society.

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