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Farewell to Nancy Reagan: Public gathers to pay respects

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley has invited the public to pay respects to former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who will lie in repose Wednesday and Thursday before her burial in a private ceremony Friday.

I think she never was quite complete when he was gone. I guess that was what struck me.

Paige McIlraith, visitor at the Reagan Presidential Library, on former First Lady Nancy Reagan

'Thank you for your grace, class and integrity'

As they entered the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library's courtyard on Wednesday, on their way to pay their respects at Nancy Reagan's casket, visitors were encouraged to stop and write messages to the Reagan family. Lined sheets bearing the name Nancy Davis Reagan had been set out on two long tables.

From Pasadena, in capital letters: "God bless Mrs. Reagan and the Reagan family. You and President Reagan will forever be in our hearts. Thank you for your love of our great country."

From Loma Linda: "Thank you for your grace, class and integrity."

From Thousand Oaks: "She meant so much to us. Her love, their love, inspires us daily."

One message was signed by the "Familia Aranz" of Norwalk, who said they came "from Central America arriving in early 1980s." 

"We now live the true American dream," they wrote. "Gracias."

Many visitors did not vote for Ronald Reagan

The casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan lies in repose as a statue of her late husband, former President Ronald Reagan, stands outside the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan lies in repose as a statue of her late husband, former President Ronald Reagan, stands outside the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Wednesday's visitors included many people who said they did not vote for Ronald Reagan but always respected him and Nancy Reagan. More than 1,000 people had visited by the afternoon.

"She was a very elegant lady," said Martha Veloz, 60, of North Hills, who said she did not support Reagan politically.

"Not really," she said, " but I feel whoever our president is, you have to support them and respect them."

Veloz came to the public viewing with two friends, James Louis Rodriguez, 70, and his wife, Sheila, 65. He voted for Reagan for president. She didn't. They both loved the Reagans as a couple, they said.

"We as a pair respect Ronnie and Nancy as a pair," said James Rodriguez, a Vietnam veteran who worked for 30 years for General Motors, 22 years on the assembly line in Van Nuys.

After viewing the casket and before standing on line for the shuttle bus, the three sat on a bench in the library's courtyard, eating the bologna sandwiches and doughnuts they had packed for the trip.

'Something about them just captures you'

People pay their respects to former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
People pay their respects to former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A steady stream of people came to pay their respects to Nancy Reagan on Wednesday afternoon, but the number of visitors at one time rarely was overwhelmingly large.

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."

One woman from Simi Valley even had come twice that day. Mariann Tatum, 49, who works in a photography studio, said she came first before the official visiting hours started and that she and others were let in just after 12:30 p.m. Around 3:30, she came back with her daughter, Tori Thimian, 19, who is in cosmetology school.

Living in Simi Valley, Tatum said, the Reagans and the Reagan Presidential Library always are part of your life.

"You drive by at night, you see the lights where Air Force One is on your way home," she said.

As for the Reagans, she said, even though she isn't political, "Something about them just captures you. He's just the cutest man. She's the sweetest little lady."

Tears poured down Daniel Blatt's cheeks as he walked away from the viewing. 

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

Nancy Reagan 'wasn't subservient in any way'

Linda Finley and her husband, Joe, have been married for 45 years. They had planned a trip from their home in Texas to the Simi Valley for months -- just so they could visit the Reagan Library.

Years ago, the Finleys met Ronald Reagan in Beaumont, at a dinner for supporters on the campaign trail when he was running for his first term.

"He was inclusive," Linda said of the former president. And since then they've felt personally connected. Joe can still quote him.

The day before they were scheduled to fly out, Nancy Reagan died.

The criticism the first lady received from feminists was unfair, Linda said, because Nancy Reagan was both loving, and fiercely independent, which Linda admired.

"She wasn't subservient in any way, and yet she still had that honor, that respect and that love for her husband," Linda said of the former first lady.

And as they headed back to their car, Linda turned to her husband.

"It was amazing," she told him. "I'm so glad we did this."

'This is our chance to show our respect and say goodbye'

A man prays at the casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
A man prays at the casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There's a story docent Toni Kelly likes to tell library visitors, one that she says underscores President Reagan's character.

A chocolate cake sits in the back of Air Force One, she says, because President Reagan imagined there would always be a passenger aboard who was missing a celebration at home. 

With a little advance notice, they could do something special.

As for Nancy Reagan, Craig Kelly said first ladies are "role models" for women and for "young people."

Years ago during President Reagan's funeral, the Kellys stood on the street for hours waiting for him to come by in the motorcade amid a sea of thousands of people. 

Craig Kelly recalled that moment Wednesday as he waited in line to board the bus.

"Presidents and first ladies give an awful lot to us," he said. "This is our chance to show our respect and say goodbye. That's why people come out."

Passing on Nancy Reagan's legacy to the next generation

People come to pay their respects in front of the casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan as she lies in repose at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley Wednesday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
People come to pay their respects in front of the casket of former First Lady Nancy Reagan as she lies in repose at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley Wednesday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

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

The 39-year-old still remembers "Just say no," a phrase coined by Reagan to campaign against drug use, and the D.A.R.E. program that followed.

"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."

Aschenbach's 9-year-old son, Cameron, understood Reagan this way:

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

"Not technically," his mother chimed in. "Close advisor."

No doubt about it, the most important of her special requests was that she be laid to rest right next to the president, as close as possible.

John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, on the final wishes of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday

The Reagans 'represented the best of America'

The sun bore down on a massive parking lot in Simi Valley just before noon, baking the asphalt.

Under a white tent, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people stood -- shaded and excited -- like children in line at an amusement park.

Some, such as Warren Weston and Lelia Lee, had been waiting for hours to board a white bus that would shuttle people to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Today marked their chance to pay their respects to Nancy Reagan, and Weston and Lee had arrived at 9 a.m.

Now they were first in line.

"It's a tribute to a bygone era, back when both parties would get along," said Weston, 67, of Oxnard. 

The Reagans, he said, "represented the best of America."

Weston and Lee got married in 2001 but were together years before that. The couple said they see parallels between their marriage and that of the Reagans.

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

As they boarded the bus, an official counted: "4, 5, 6..." The line, which stretched at least a city block, inched ahead in a ripple.

There were men in full suits, and women in high heels, but also a boy in a Boy Scout uniform and people in shorts clutching cups of soda.

"We love her," said Linda Finley, who had come from Texas with plans to see the library anyway.

"She's an icon," Finley said. 

Minutes later, the bus' hazard lights clicked on and it slowly rolled away. 

Hundreds gather to remember Nancy Reagan

House Speaker Paul Ryan pays his respects to Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan's casket arrives at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Watch live: Nancy Reagan viewing open to mourners

Honoring Nancy Reagan

The casket carrying former First Lady Nancy Reagan leaves a mortuary in Santa Monica after a small ceremony en route to the Reagan Presidential LIbrary in Simi Valley on March 9, 2016. (Jae C. Hong / AFP/Getty Images)
The casket carrying former First Lady Nancy Reagan leaves a mortuary in Santa Monica after a small ceremony en route to the Reagan Presidential LIbrary in Simi Valley on March 9, 2016. (Jae C. Hong / AFP/Getty Images)

Firefighters salute Nancy Reagan during motorcade

Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters stood at attention Wednesday morning as a hearse carrying Nancy Reagan's casket traveled along several freeways before arriving at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Firefighters stood at three freeway overpasses for Reagan's funeral motorcade to "show of respect and admiration for our state's and nation's former first lady," LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said.

Reagan, 94, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her home in Bel-Air.

Reagan will lie in repose Wednesday and Thursday at the library.

The public will have a chance to pay last respects Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the library before the funeral Friday.

About 1,000 people will be invited to attend Reagan's funeral, including President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former presidents, first ladies, heads of state and other dignitaries, said Melissa Giller, a spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.

In lieu of flowers, Reagan asked that contributions be made to the Ronald Reagan Memorial Fund at reaganlibrary.com.

Mr. T, Wayne Newton among celebrities to attend Nancy Reagan funeral

Nancy Reagan after a GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library. (Paul Buck / EPA)
Nancy Reagan after a GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library. (Paul Buck / EPA)

Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton, '80s TV icon Mr. T and other celebrities will join First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at Nancy Reagan's private funeral Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Among those scheduled to attend include newsman Sam Donaldson, Katie Couric, Chris Mathews, actress Anjelica Huston and talk show host Melissa Rivers.

In a talk Tuesday, Michelle Obama paid tribute to Reagan, saying she "reminded us of the importance of women’s leadership." She said Reagan offered helpful advice when she became first lady.

Reagan, 94, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her home in Bel-Air.

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.

“They had such a true love affair,” Giller said. “She’s missed him since the day he passed, and I’m sure they are quite happy to be together again.”

The funeral procession is being planned based on the former first lady’s wishes, including her choice of the people to be invited, the readings to be given and the people involved in the program, Giller said.

About 1,000 people will be invited, including President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former presidents, first ladies, heads of state and other dignitaries, she said.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton will attend Reagan funeral; the president will not

Former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan share a moment on their 50th anniversary on March 4, 2002. Nancy turned to astrology in the White House in an attempt to protect her husband. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
Former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan share a moment on their 50th anniversary on March 4, 2002. Nancy turned to astrology in the White House in an attempt to protect her husband. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are scheduled to attend Nancy Reagan's private funeral Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

President Obama, however, won't attend and will instead be at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, according to several media outlets.

In a talk Tuesday, Michelle Obama paid tribute to Reagan, saying she "reminded us of the importance of women’s leadership." She said Reagan offered helpful advice when she became first lady.

Reagan, 94, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her home in Bel-Air.

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.

“They had such a true love affair,” Giller said. “She’s missed him since the day he passed, and I’m sure they are quite happy to be together again.”

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