Olive View Fund-Raiser : Hospital Lauds Early Volunteer: ‘Ma’ Reagan

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when county hospital patients went job-hunting in Ronald Reagan’s clothes.

They got them from Nelle Reagan, the President’s mother, who was deeply involved in the kind of individual community service that Reagan has been calling for as an alternative to government aid, according to the President’s older brother, Neil.

The efforts of Nelle Reagan, who died in 1962, were recognized and praised Saturday night by more than 600 persons devoted to the cause she worked for in the 1930s and 1940s: Olive View Sanatorium.

They paid $150 a person to attend a fund-raising dinner for the Olive View Medical Center Foundation. The President sent a videotaped speech, and Neil Reagan, 77, accepted a plaque.


The dinner’s organizers, looking for a theme and big names to promote the dinner, capitalized on what they called Mrs. Reagan’s “spirit of volunteerism” and dedicated the evening to her.

For years, stories had circulated at the hospital about her interest in it.

A Frequent Visitor

Mrs. Reagan, who was active in the work of the Hollywood Beverly Christian Church in Los Angeles, spent a large part of her time visiting patients at Olive View, then a tuberculosis sanatorium, and prisoners at the Lincoln Heights jail, Neil Reagan said in a pre-dinner interview.


“I don’t have the slightest inkling of how she got started there, but I do know that every week she would get in the car and spend a whole day out there,” he said. “She was always putting together things to take to those patients. If it was a girl, she’d give her one of her own handkerchiefs or cut up some ribbons. Sometimes she’d bake a batch of cookies.”

He said she called the patients “my boys” and would often borrow money from her sons to buy chocolate bars and pencils for them. And often, when men were ready to be released, she would take them clothes from Ronald Reagan’s closet so they would be properly dressed for job interviews, Neil Reagan said.

“Then she would turn into a taxi service for these guys, driving them around to get to the interviews,” he said.

Foundation directors said they hope the time Mrs. Reagan donated to Olive View Sanatorium for more than 20 years will be an example today--only now the call is for money as well as time.


President’s Message

In his videotaped message, the President told the audience:

“Following my mother’s example, I have always cherished the belief that people are often benefitted most by voluntary participation in community programs.” He said he takes “great pride in being able to say that my mother was one of the many volunteers who gave their time and love to this work.”

The President said, “Nelle Reagan--or Ma Reagan, to those who knew her well--would make weekly trips to the sanatorium, offering gifts of food or candy,” the President said. “But her most valuable gift was the inspiration she brought to the sick, the inspiration for hope in the midst of suffering.”


The dinner in the ballroom of the Sheraton Premiere Hotel drew three times as many donors as the 200 expected originally by organizers. It brought in $87,000 and made a profit of about $20,000, organizers said.

The foundation announced it will give an annual award in Nelle Reagan’s name for distinguished community service.

In January, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the formation of the Olive View Medical Center Foundation, a nonprofit, private organization.

The foundation’s long-range goals include raising $4 million for public health education courses and construction of a medical instruction auditorium. In the short term, officials hope to raise $50,000 for health programs offered in Spanish in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley.


Olive View joins other county hospitals in trying to raise money through methods usually used by private hospitals.

Setbacks Encountered

But unlike Rancho Los Amigos or County-USC Medical Center, with established reputations for physical rehabilitation and research, Olive View has had an unsettled history. A previous hospital was destroyed in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake only a month after it opened, and the hospital operated out of temporary quarters for 15 years.

Officials said a foundation is needed so that the hospital--which in affiliation with the UCLA School of Medicine, will reopen next month in a new building on its old site in Sylmar--can grow into a major medical teaching facility.


Dr. Irwin Ziment, president of the foundation’s board of directors, said it was decided to invoke the Reagan name because “we needed a story to inspire people.” He continued, “We will be using this lady’s name to raise money for a health education building, not exploiting the name for any other thing but the good of the community.”

When Mrs. Reagan was a volunteer there, Olive View was a county sanatorium for 1,500 patients housed in about two dozen bungalows spread over 580 acres in the San Gabriel foothills. It was the largest center for the treatment of tuberculosis west of the Mississippi River at a time when therapy consisted of liberal doses of fresh country air.

“The role of the volunteer was extremely important for these patients,” Ziment said. “They largely went without treatment, and when they did get treatment it was something traumatic, like having a lung removed. Some slowly but surely got well. Others slowly died.

“These volunteers became firm friends of the patients, who were away from home and alone.”


Neil Reagan said he didn’t think his mother would have minded having her name used to raise money. “The reason she is being remembered is that she had a son who is President of the United States. But no, I don’t thing she would mind. I think she would be doing a jig if she were alive--not that she was one to run around getting merit badges,” he said.

“She would have said, ‘What? Me? Why of course you can do this, but why?”