CALIFORNIA

Nancy Reagan is eulogized as tough but tender and her husband's fiercest protector

In a service filled with stories of the enduring love between one of the nation's most influential political couples, dignitaries, celebrities and other mourners joined Friday to eulogize Nancy Reagan, recalling a former first lady as tough as she was tender and who was an astute and forceful protector of her husband's legacy.

Beneath a gray sky at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, hundreds came to pay their respects to Reagan, who died at her Bel-Air home Sunday at 94. She was interred beside her husband, the nation's 40th president, with whom she was inseparable in life.

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Those who gathered reflected Reagan's journey from Hollywood during its Golden Age to the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama; former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura; and former first lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sat side by side, while celebrities such as actors Mr. T and Tom Selleck and singer Johnny Mathis also were in attendance.

Reagan was remembered as a romantic, but with a steely spine.

Her daughter, Patti Davis, recalled that in the months before Ronald Reagan died, Nancy Reagan told her family she had to be at his side during his last living moments.

Davis faced her mother's famous resolve with patience, telling her that was in God's hands. But, sure enough, when her husband took his last breath in 2004, Nancy was there, as she always was.

"Even God might not have the guts to argue with Nancy Reagan," Davis said.

At a funeral in which she had planned every detail, down to the readings and her favored peonies atop her coffin, Nancy Reagan was recalled as a woman who could be both charming and difficult.

That Reagan, a former actress, most valued her role of wife was evident from the first Scripture reading from the book of Proverbs: "When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize."

The crowd let out an "aww" at the reading of a letter to Reagan from her beloved "Ronnie" at Christmas in 1981. In the note, read aloud by former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the president told his wife that there were "several much beloved women" in his life.

There was the nest builder, who, if stuck three days in a hotel room, would "manage to make it home sweet home." There was the "sentimental lady" whose eyes filled easily with tears but who had a laugh like tinkling bells. There was his first lady, who brought grace even to "stuffy, formal functions," turning them to fun.

"I'm also crazy about the girl who goes to the ranch with me," Ronald Reagan wrote. She was a "peewee powerhouse" at pushing over dead trees, and she was nice to have sitting beside him next to a fire.

"Fortunately, all these women in my life are you," he wrote. "I love the whole gang of you — Mommie, first lady, sentimental you, the fun you, and the peewee powerhouse you."

He signed it, "Lucky me."

Nancy Reagan saved love notes from her husband in a shopping bag tucked in a closet, James A. Baker, Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff, said in his eulogy. She slipped notes and jelly beans into the president's suitcases. When he was away, she knit him socks.

But she was also "as tough as a Marine drill sergeant," Baker said, calling Nancy Reagan her husband's closest advisor. The president's aides, he said, learned to always keep her informed and seek her support.

Her son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, echoed that sentiment.

"My father was inclined to believe that everyone was basically good," he said. "My mother didn't share that inclination, and she didn't have that luxury. In my mother's world, you were either helpful to her husband, or you were not."

His mother "was not always the easiest person to deal with" and could be demanding and difficult — but usually only so her husband didn't have to be, the younger Reagan said. When it came down to it, "you couldn't ask for a more loyal or dedicated friend."

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. From there, his parents could rest in each other's arms, Ron Reagan said. His voice quavered as he imagined them watching the sunsets, his father telling his mother that the city lights below were her jewels.

"From here, she will be able to keep an eye on things," he said, laughing. There might soon be tales of a "petite, Chanel-clad spirit" roaming the halls of the library, making sure things are running smoothly.

Journalist Diane Sawyer recalled interviewing Nancy Reagan years ago. They talked about her husband's devastating Alzheimer's disease, and how one can endure when "the size of the love is the size of the loss."

At lunch, Sawyer said, Reagan would eat "microscopic pieces of food" — tiny, chopped salads and iced tea — while Sawyer buttered dinner rolls under the table, out of Reagan's sight so as not to offend her. She recalled Reagan telling "very wicked stories about old Hollywood."

In the weeks after Ronald Reagan died, Nancy Reagan told Davis that she heard his footsteps in the hall and that he would appear to her, late at night Over time, Davis said, the visits ceased, but Reagan never stopped missing him. She began keeping the television on, so the noise would fill the lonely silence.

"My parents were two halves of a circle, closed tight around a world in which their love for each other was the only sustenance they needed," Davis said. "While they might venture out and include others in their orbit, no one truly crossed the boundary into the space they held as theirs."

Her relationship with her mother was sometimes rocky, Davis said.

"But there were moments in our history when all that was going on between us was love," she said. "I choose to remember those moments."

Davis and Ron Reagan stood near their mother's casket just before a heavy rain began. With a choir singing "God Bless America," Ronald Prescott Reagan kissed the palm of his hand and patted his mother's casket.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 12, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "PAYING TRIBUTE - Mourners recall an enduring love story - Hundreds gather to remember Nancy Reagan, a romantic with a steely spine and her husband's fiercest protector" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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