Reclaiming Ronnie 

Folks in Tampico want the world to know that our 40th president's Illinois roots go deeper than Dixon.

On Sunday, May 10, 1992, a private plane landed at Whiteside County Airport in Rock Falls, Illinois, about 100 miles west of downtown Chicago and 12 miles north of Tampico, population 800.

An unmarked rental car headed south on Route 40. Its occupant, Ronald Wilson Reagan, was no longer president, though he had 11 Secret Service agents in tow. He was a man holding on to memories shadowed by their impending loss, on his way back to the rural town where he was born.

In contrast to Reagan's heavily ticker-taped appearances in 1950 and 1976--the former as a Hollywood star, the latter while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination--the visit was a quiet one. Only Pastor Clarke Devore of the Tampico Church of Christ and a few other locals sworn to secrecy knew about it. Staffers had called earlier informing Devore of Reagan's wish to quietly attend services.

Amy McElhiney was in the pews that morning. Although the church wasn't her usual place of worship, Devore had invited her because of her involvement with the Tampico Area Historical Society.

Today, Amy and her husband, Lloyd, run the Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum at 111 S. Main, a half mile north of the church in a storefront on the block-long strip that is downtown Tampico. On a recent morning so cloudy it's difficult to discern where Tampico's white grain elevator ends and the colorless sky begins, McElhiney stands behind the counter of the museum. Her cane is propped against the wall; her arthritic hands straighten racks of key chains, postcards, and other Reagan-era memorabilia on display next to a donation jar that's empty save for a few crumpled bills and a smattering of coins. The silver-haired 79-year-old remembers the former president's visit vividly.

The morning was clear and blue, she says, not a cloud in the sky. Really just a beautiful, perfect day. Reagan, she recalls, looked very smart in a dark blue blazer, gray slacks, and a red-and-blue diagonally striped necktie. Nancy, petite and fashionable as ever, wore a gray suit.

"It was a little bit of magic when they brought him into the church from the side door," says McElhiney, who admits she got hooked on Reagan from the westerns she watched as a little girl. Men like Errol Flynn never quite thrilled her the same way.

Did she shake his hand? Say hello? Make small talk? Chat with Nancy?

"No," McElhiney says wistfully. "I was completely happy just being there. I probably would have fainted if I'd have gotten near him and wouldn't have been able to think of anything to say anyway. I'm just too much of a fan."

Despite the Reagans' wish that there be no impromptu speeches, Devore couldn't resist asking. It's not often that the only president born in Illinois worships under the same steeple where he once sat with his mother, Nelle, a staunch Protestant. (Reagan's father, Jack, worshiped at Saint Mary's Catholic Church down the road.) As it was Mother's Day, Reagan obliged.

"He spoke lovely words about his mother," says McElhiney. "Just lovely, it was a real special treat to see him standing up there."

After church the Reagans and Edmund Morris--Reagan's official biographer--toured the museum, which was cordoned off for privacy. At that time Morris was only halfway through the 14 years of unfettered access to Reagan and his administration that it would take for him to complete the controversially received Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's 1992 visit to Tampico, Morris writes in Dutch, was fueled by his "sudden senescent desire to visit, for the first time since 1911, what was now grandly called the Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum."

Paul and Helen Nicely, founders of the museum, showed the Reagans clay replicas of the three residences Reagan lived in during his family's on-and-off ten-year stint in Tampico. The Nicelys escorted them past tables and walls crammed with photographs, grammar school report cards, correspondence, yearbooks, wedding announcements, and other minutiae that in places like Tampico usually yellow in attics before turning up in cardboard boxes at farm auctions.

The highlight of the tour was a walk through the five-room apartment above the museum, where the Reagan family lived from September 1906 to June 1911. It was here that Jack Reagan, within moments of his youngest son's birth on February 6, 1911, remarked, "For such a little bit of a fat Dutchman, he makes a lot of noise, doesn't he?" The comment stuck; Reagan's lifelong nickname became "Dutch."

Reagan had tried to see the apartment in 1976, but a family was living there and, according to Amy McElhiney, the Secret Service agents didn't think it was a good idea. Thus, Reagan was only able to tour the downstairs of the building, which at that time housed an informal card and memorabilia shop celebrating his acting career and status as governor of California. When he became president, the Nicelys stopped renting the apartment out and began slowly refurnishing it to reflect what it might have looked like during the years the Reagan family occupied it. They changed the sign out front to say "Birthplace of President Ronald Reagan" rather than Governor.

Now there's a double bed with a colorful quilt in the room where Reagan was born. The hallways of the apartment are long and narrow, and it's anchored by a small kitchen in the rear where a wicker crib sits beneath the window. An ironing board stands just a few feet away; Paul Nicely, who decorated the apartment himself, perhaps visualized Nelle Reagan straightening the creases of her husband's white shirts within sight and earshot of her newborn baby boy.

In 1994, two years after Reagan's visit, Paul Nicely died of a heart attack. Helen briefly took over managing the museum until her own increasing dementia forced her to relinquish duties to the McElhineys. They were a natural choice--the couple was already familiar with the museum and planned the village's annual Ronald Reagan birthday celebration. (The most recent bash included free popcorn and a showing of Standup Reagan, a video of the president telling jokes and stories that Amy swears can induce a chuckle or two even from non-Reagan fans.)

According to Amy, Paul Nicely saw the museum as more of a business venture than a personal mission. Sometimes, Lloyd notes, he wouldn't get very far into his tours before letting something negative about Reagan slip. The McElhineys, however, are registered Republicans and are crazy about introducing visitors to the 40th president's Tampico roots. They're not paid, as the museum doesn't turn a profit, but they host tours by appointment December and January and are open the rest of the year from 10 to 4 Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 Sundays. Still, despite their enthusiasm, tourists haven't exactly descended upon Tampico in the waves Paul Nicely anticipated. The museum gets perhaps 20 guests on a "really, really good day," estimates Amy, and thus far by noon had received none on this apparently unremarkable one.

The McElhineys believe Reagan historians have minimized Tampico's importance in Reagan's life, often referring solely to Dixon, 25 miles northeast in the Rock River Valley, as his boyhood home.

Edmund Morris didn't bypass Tampico, yet from the tone of Amy's voice when she talks about the author it can be inferred that she wishes he had. She has yet to finish Dutch. Reading it gives her a headache, and besides, as many of its critics despaired, Morris's book is a peculiar blend of fact and fiction. But she gives the 896-page tome as much table space as she allots other less-than-favorable books, like Reagan daughter Patti Davis's The Way I See It.

Amy remembers Morris as a fun man, with a good sense of humor. The biographer often ate meals at the Dutch Diner when in town researching his book. For these reasons, and because Dutch got such poor reviews anyway, she hasn't had the heart to write Morris a letter detailing her grievances.

But for starters, she did not appreciate the language or exhaustive detail lavished on Nelle Reagan's breasts. On page 13 the narrator fixates on a photograph of Nelle laughing in a loose black swimsuit, hanging out at a nearby creek. Morris writes, "But I could not take my eyes off Nelle's breasts. Here was a young woman full of the milk of life, relaxedly half-naked in public. How to reconcile this earth mother with the shrunken old Bible-thumper who would not undress until she had shut the bathroom door and gotten into a closet?"

"Nelle was a virtuous woman," Amy says, her voice strained. "She read to prisoners and dedicated her life to charity."

She also didn't care much for Morris's references to the six-streetlight town of Tampico, where Jack Reagan worked at the H.C. Pitney General Store, as a "home for the homely," or to the worshipers at Tampico Church of Christ as "a corn-fed lot." To the tally of facts Morris notoriously bungled or fudged, she'd like to add this one: "He said that during the church service he leaned over and whispered something in Ronald's ear. He was two pews back," she says. "We've got it on video."

Perhaps most disappointing to Amy was that Morris wrote that the president pretty much recoiled upon seeing his humble birthplace, which Amy considers an insult to Paul Nicely, who went to great lengths stripping the wallpaper, refinishing the woodwork, and frequenting antique shops and auctions to find furnishings appropriate to the period. The nomadic Reagans, who moved 11 times before Ronald turned 18, left nothing behind. "He did not recoil," Amy says. "He enjoyed seeing his birthplace."

But the McElhineys have their own relationship to the facts of Reagan's life. For one, they prefer to gloss over the alcoholism that plagued Jack Reagan and contributed to his inability to keep a job. The elder Reagan's penchant for drink led to Tampico's serving mainly as the site where his son's lifelong claustrophobia originated, sparked when a tipsy Jack Reagan, returning from Rock Island with goods and family in tow, drove his new Model T into a tree stump, leaving Ronald trapped under the crumpled roof.

Amy maintains that the impetus for the family's many moves was Reagan pere's go get 'em nature. "Jack could sell anything," she says. "He was just looking for better opportunities."

Indeed, by Tampico's modest standards, Jack Reagan was steadily moving up in the world, having been promoted from merchandiser to manager of the general store shortly before Ronald was born. A February 10, 1911, clipping from the Tampico Tornado announced, "John Reagan has been calling thirty-seven inches a yard and giving seventeen ounces for a pound this week at Pitney's store, he has been feeling so jubilant over the arrival of a ten pound boy Monday."

Within a few months of Ronald's birth, the Reagans moved a few hundred yards away from 111 S. Main to a sprawling two-story white house at 104 Glassburn. They stayed until Ronald was five years old, whereupon they packed up and moved to the south side of Chicago, then Galesburg, then Monmouth, and eventually back to Tampico, where they rented their third residence there until one month shy of Reagan's tenth birthday.

Built by industrialist Vern Glassburn, whose father, J.W., owned the land on which Tampico was established in 1875, 104 Glassburn is across the street from Railroad Park, which was renamed Ronald Reagan Park in 1985, three years after Tampico's Main Street Historic District made the National Register of Historic Places. Reagan Park features a Civil War-era cannon, a playground with chipped animals bobbing on rusty springs, and a few picnic benches covered by a red-and-white circus-top awning.

The fact that 104 Glassburn isn't on the National Register of Historic Places hasn't stopped the current owners from planting a sign on the front lawn advertising it as "Ronald Reagan Early Boyhood Home."

In the gravel driveway is a red minivan with a license plate that reads snookm. If you look past the peeling paint on the pillars, past the children's bicycles strewn about the lawn, and past the browning houseplant swinging from the porch, you can almost visualize one of the grandest homes in Tampico.

In 1992 Morris did not attempt to usher the Reagans back into this house. In his prologue, he points "down the one-block street...and across the tracks." He tells Reagan, "You can't see it but it's the house of your first memories."

The plan for the day was to go to the church, the museum, and a luncheon at the Dutch Diner. Reagan, Morris noted, had nodded, "docile as ever," when he was told there were no plans to tour 104 Glassburn. The owners of the house, listed as a private residence, had not been contacted. "The current occupants of the white, double story house," Morris surmised, "had no desire to welcome him. Judging by the number of major appliances on the stoop, they were not Reagan Republicans."

Morris was correct. Marti Wood and her husband, Mark, a long-haul truck driver, voted for Gore in the last election. Marti ("Snookm" is her CB handle) is quick to say she's not big on politics.

She's not that big on the house either. It's been in her family for over four decades, and her family is getting tired of Ronald Reagan Park's most loyal visitors--local teenagers who play loud music and hang out after curfew, despite her complaints to the police.

The last person who expressed interest in buying 104 Glassburn offered $50,000, but she thinks they can do better given the Reagan connection and all. Years ago, when Reagan was in office, Marti says, someone offered her father, now deceased, $115,000 for the house. He turned it down. "It was personal," she says. "My father laid his feet here and this is where he was going to stay."

Before a recent remodeling, you could see the Reagans' fireplace in the dimly lit kitchen. In the living room, just off the front porch, under the new dark pink carpeting, are the original hardwood floors young Ronald's feet tromped across. Marti had wanted to gut the three picture windows off the dining room but didn't on the advice of friends.

Marti wasn't aware of Reagan's 1992 visit. She has vivid memories of the 1976 stop, however, when her family was hanging out in the front yard after the parade. She was just a kid, but remembers a long black limousine that pulled into the driveway, paused, and pulled out.

"We figured it was Reagan. Who else could it have been?"

That was all, she adds. No heads poking out the rolled-up, tinted windows, no knock on the door, nothing. Wood says that her family would have been happy to welcome Reagan if only he'd introduced himself.

"The closest we've come to Reagan was waving at him in that parade," she says, and shrugs. Her daughters, Tiffany, 14, and Amanda, 16, smile sheepishly from the couch. Tiffany says that a few kids at school know she lives in Reagan's house--probably they've seen the sign in the yard or something.

Amy McElhiney tells a slightly different story. She says that Marilyn Wood, Marti's mother, also now deceased, approached the Tampico Area Historical Society and claimed that she'd had an offer of $300,000 for the house.

"Marilyn had asked us if it was OK if we said that Ronald was born in her house rather than the apartment," Amy says. "She said, 'Don't you think it would have been better for him to have been born in a big house rather than an apartment?'"

Amy said no--the apartment above the bakery, however cramped, was where Reagan was born. "There are too many people today revising history," she says.

Two hours before closing, Amy gets her first chance of the day to help set the record straight.

Peggy Gentry and Donald Earhart, longtime friends who describe themselves as close, travel around the country in a Winnebago each summer. Earhart is a farmer from nearby Port Byron; Gentry is retired and lives in Clearwater, Florida. They're just passing through Tampico and happened across the museum on their way to the Dutch Diner.

Amy grabs her cane and starts the tour, reciting the script she knows by heart. She shows Earhart and Gentry the clay reliefs, then waves them quickly past the 1999 Newsweek article on Reagan's Alzheimer's to his carefully preserved report cards. She marvels aloud at the lovely handwriting of Miss Nellie Darby, Reagan's second-grade teacher.

As Amy talks, her husband sits in the gift shop shooting the breeze with a local farmer who's killing time while his wife is at a doctor's appointment across the street. Lloyd McElhiney recently took on the duty of walking visitors through the upstairs apartment, as Amy's knees can no longer handle the steep stairway.

Facing the men is a rack of postcards, one of which features a photograph Lloyd snapped on November 3, 1980. He'd been working inside the grain elevator across the street when he looked out the small window after a heavy rainfall and noticed a double rainbow that appeared to end at the top window of the apartment where the then-campaigning candidate was born. He ran home to get his camera. The next day, Reagan was elected president of the United States.

On March 30, 1982, a delegation from Illinois visited the White House to meet with Reagan. Howard "Bud" Thompson, mayor of nearby Prophetstown, presented the president with the postcard compliments of the Tampico Area Historical Society. According to Thompson, Reagan was quite thrilled with the postcard and remarked, "Somebody must have had something in mind for me."

Former labor secretary Lynn Martin recently told the McElhineys that Reagan kept the postcard in the top drawer of his White House desk throughout his presidency.

"I think it proves that nothing's left to chance," Amy says, as Gentry nods politely and takes one of the cards in her tanned hand to scrutinize it.

"It was all according to God's plan," Amy continues excitedly, fueled by Gentry's interest. "Ronald called the postcard eerie. We like to call it prophetic."

The postcard was the inspiration for "The Rainbow on the Roof," the second chapter in Morris's book. Morris attributed the image on the postcard to a nameless "amateur photographer who captured the effect."

Lloyd bids good-bye to the farmer and takes Earhart and Gentry upstairs for the second half of the tour. The visitors are impressed, murmuring words like marvelous and checking out the woodwork. Earhart wonders aloud how the Reagans afforded such fancy furniture. Gentry picks up an antique iron and gaily remarks that she has one just like it in her kitchen.

The two giggle and pose for a photograph next to the wood bassinet that never actually cradled baby Ronald Wilson Reagan. "Now don't get any ideas," Gentry says slyly, her hands resting on the side of the crib. She smiles up at Earhart, fighting a blush.

At the end of the tour they linger around the mahogany dinner table, chatting with Lloyd. He and Earhart exchange anecdotes about growing up on farms. Gentry mentions that they also recently enjoyed the John Wayne museum in Iowa. She digs through her cavernous purse to extract a tube of lipstick and applies a fresh coat when Earhart isn't looking.

Earhart tells Lloyd that he agreed with Reagan about 90 percent of the time. If that other 10 percent disappoints Lloyd, he doesn't show it. He simply nods his head. Like he told the farmer downstairs earlier, he's seen thousands of visitors over the years, and fondly recalls all of the Asians and Europeans who pay homage to the birthplace and confide that they believe Reagan saved them from communism.

Gentry says that they should really publicize the museum more. Lloyd sucks in a deep breath and agrees. He tells them about Helen Nicely, who wasn't much for PR or general upkeep following her husband's death, when tourists apparently walked right down Main Street with no idea that the woman sitting in the car parked in front of the museum with the windows rolled up was the person who could take them through the birthplace.

Plus, he adds, achieving greater visibility is not as easy as you'd think, especially when some of Tampico's very own residents are not aware of the museum. He tells a story that a tourist told him a few years back.

"One visitor told us that he was lost in Tampico and approached a man that was mowing his lawn. He asked the man where the birthplace was, and the man asked, 'What birthplace?'" Lloyd pauses, gauging the effect of his words on the couple. "How could he not know?" Lloyd asks. Earhart looks nervously at Gentry.

"Maybe he was just being facetious?" he offers, raising his eyebrows.

"Or just a liberal," Lloyd shoots back.

All three burst into laughter.

Amy McElhiney straightens the hat on a mannequin that looks surprisingly similar to a young Ronald Reagan, even though it wasn't created as such.

She moves past the display of carefully folded Reagan T-shirts and peers into a glass display case, squinting at a letter from 1955 when Reagan--then a successful actor--declined to serve as the celebrity marshal of Tampico High's homecoming parade. It's a warm letter, in which Reagan laments that his foot is slung up in a cast and that it's highly unlikely he'll recover in time.

Amy, who's scheduled for cataract surgery the following week, cannot quite make out the tight, dark scrawl through the glass. Nevertheless she sighs and says, "He had a down-to-earth quality about him that always made his letters and correspondence very personal."

She moves on to the next room, where she stops at a table set with a bowl of Jelly Bellies. "These were Ronald's favorite candy," she says, popping an orange one in her mouth. She motions to a dainty silver spoon resting in the plastic bowl. "Please, try some."

It's been a long day, the kind that brings memories to the surface and sometimes gets her thinking about Helen Nicely, who's living in a nursing home.

"She was one of my very best friends," she says. "It's difficult to see her..." She pauses, searching for the right word. "Deteriorate," she says, finally. She doesn't visit Helen as much anymore, as her friend is--she pauses again--"no longer cogent." (Helen Nicely died on June 26, after I visited Tampico.)

Amy brightens a little and motions around. "I spend so much time here, there's not much time for anything else."

"It's hard to give up people, friends, even presidents. I kept thinking during the Iraq war as I was watching President Bush talk on television, 'What would Ronald do if he were in office?' Now please don't get me wrong--I do think that George Bush is doing a good job--but I can't help but wonder."

A few months ago the museum received an invitation to the commissioning of the USS Ronald Reagan in Norfolk, Virginia, scheduled for July 12. It's displayed on a table reserved for correspondence. Amy picks it up, traces the embossed lettering with her polished fingernail. She wants to attend the ceremony, but travel isn't cheap, and her health is failing. "We have an invitation, so we [the historical society] could send somebody," she says. "I'd love to be that somebody."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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