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Nancy Reagan admirers trek to presidential library in Simi Valley to pay their final respects

Sheltered beneath a white tent, they waited patiently at the edge of a sun-baked parking lot in Simi Valley.

They had gathered by the hundreds to say goodbye to a woman who had not only touched their lives but also embodied an era — and a marriage — that many of them recalled fondly.

"We love her," Linda Finley said as she boarded a shuttle that would take her to view the casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. "She's an icon, first lady and wife."

Throughout the afternoon and early evening Wednesday, 3,115 mourners filed through the hushed marble lobby of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to pay their final respects.

Tears poured down Daniel Blatt's cheeks as he stepped away from the velvet-roped viewing area.

Asked if he had known Nancy Reagan personally, he shook his head. "It's the love story,"he said, his voice breaking.

"He wouldn't have been anything without her by his side," the 52-year-old West Hollywood writer said of the former president. "I loved how devoted he was to her, how much he knew he owed to her. He had a good wife and he trusted her for counsel. She supported him throughout his life."

Wednesday was the first of two days that the public will be allowed to pay respects to the former first lady. The official "lying in repose" will continue from 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday. On Friday, Reagan will be buried beside her husband in a private ceremony.

Among those who had made the pilgrimage were Warren Weston and Lelia Lee of Oxnard.

The Reagans "represented the best of America," said Weston, 67. "It's a tribute to a bygone era, back when both parties would get along."

Weston and Lee, who married in 2001, said they recognized a bit of themselves in the Reagans.

"She cared about her husband," said Lee, 60, as she adjusted her black sun hat.

The first lady's enormous casket lay covered with flowers on a black pedestal surrounded by a velvet rope and watched over by motionless guards. Mourners, spaced a few feet apart, circled slowly, some head-down or eyes-left, others stopping in momentary reflection.

As they left the room, they were handed cards with Nancy Reagan's monogram in red: "With Gratitude for Your Expression of Sympathy in Honoring the Life of Nancy Davis Reagan."

Memorial ceremonies had begun earlier in the day in Santa Monica, with a private observance at the Little Chapel of the Dawn at the Gates, Kingsley & Gates Moeller Murphy mortuary.

It was there that Nancy Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, greeted about 20 of the former first lady's close friends and family members, including Ronald Reagan's son, Michael, and Dennis Revell, husband of the former president's late daughter Maureen.

Nancy Reagan's casket was then carried by pallbearers that included members of her Secret Service detail to a hearse for the 45-mile motorcade to Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles.

As the motorcade pulled away from the Tudor-style funeral home, hundreds of onlookers crowded the boulevard, holding up cellphones and cameras.

Library officials say Reagan had planned her own funeral down to the last detail, including the guest list and the location of her interment.

When the library was built, the Reagans decided they wanted to be buried together on the west side of the property, facing the Pacific Ocean, said Melissa Giller, a spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are among about 1,000 expected to attend Friday's private funeral. Other former first ladies expected to attend are Laura Bush, with her husband, former President George W. Bush, and Rosalynn Carter.

President Obama, who was scheduled to be at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, will not attend, according to several media outlets.

Wednesday's proceedings attracted both Republicans and Democrats.

In the parking lot, shuttles brought in fresh mourners as those returning drifted back to their cars.

"No cards, no gifts for Mrs. Reagan on the bus!" a staff member moving down the line instructed. "We're collecting them here."

Diana Aschenbach, 39, said she pulled her three children out of school to pay their respects. Aschenbach said she "revered" Nancy Reagan growing up, and it was important to "pass this on" to her kids.

She still remembers "Just say no," a phrase coined by Reagan to campaign against drug use.

"This is history," Aschenbach told her kids driving to the shuttle pickup.

"I know it's not what they'd rather do right now, but they'll remember it," she said.

Aschenbach's 9-year-old son Cameron came with an almost accurate picture of the woman he came to mourn:

"She was a very important first lady," he said, "and she was second in command president."

"Not technically," his mother corrected. "Close advisor."

After her viewing, Texan Linda Finley stepped off the bus with Joe, her husband of 45 years, and offered some last words on the former first lady:

"She wasn't subservient in any way, and yet she still had that honor, that respect, and that love for her husband. Young people today need to learn from history and know how to be a wife that God wants you to be."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByMattStevens

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

Times staff writer Doug Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 10, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Mourning Nancy Reagan - Paying their final respects - Hundreds of admirers trek to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley to see former first lady `lying in repose.' `We love her,' one says." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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