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Reagan’s Memories : An Odd Trove of Gifts at the President’s Alma Mater Provides Insights Into the Lighter Side of a Legacy

<i> Leopold is a Chicago writer</i>

They are all here. The footballs autographed “for the Gipper,” cowboy boots bearing the presidential seal, T-shirts emblazoned with “Daffy Kadaffy” and “Hugs Not Drugs,” books on topics as obscure as chiropractic ethics and baseball caps from the Hoboken Democrats.

These are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of gifts that Ronald and Nancy Reagan have received during two presidential terms. Now that they are moving across the country after eight years in the White House, there are a lot of possessions to sort out with care. Because these items were presented to the President and his First Lady, in one way or another they bear the stamp of history.

“A lot of items have been given to the President in eight years. I’ve never known of any to be thrown away,” White House spokesman Mark Weinberg said. “Every item is of importance to the Reagans. These gifts are part of the Reagan presidency. The Reagans don’t view (them) as personal gifts but as gifts to the American people.”

Reagan has selected his alma mater, Eureka College, as a repository for what might be called the light side of his legacy. It was of the picturesque college here in the heart of Illinois corn country that Reagan, class of ’32, said: “Everything I am started in Eureka.” A “C” student known as Dutch, Reagan was active in theater and student government, lettered in football and was cheerleader for the basketball team. All the while he worked in the cafeteria to help pay tuition fees.

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Since 1975, Reagan has directed more than 1,000 items from his broadcasting, film and political careers to the small liberal arts college here, which had hoped to receive his personal papers. Those papers, however, will be housed at the future Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

The college has packed more than 160 shelves with commemorative plaques Reagan received from the likes of the U.S. Forest Service and the Touchdown Club of Washington. The college boasts of hundreds of keys to cities as diverse as Cleveland, Vallejo, Calif., and Roanoke, Va., and possesses Reagan’s lifetime membership cards to the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn., the Iowa Sportscasters Assn. and the U.S. Polo Team.

Autographed Books

College administrators are now sorting through the contents of about two dozen cardboard boxes they will add to the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Memorabilia Collection that have been shipped from the White House in the last few months. Among the hundreds of items are books--some signed by notables such as Ferdinand Marcos, Jimmy Carter, actress Jane Seymour, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick.

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Now that amounts to a lot of stuff--or artifacts--for the American people and for Eureka. And, to the untrained eye, some of it may appear less than historically significant.

Not true, said Ray Browne, a popular culture specialist at Ohio’s Bowling Green University. “This kind of stuff is significant because it reveals a level and an area of things that social historians 100 years from now will be tremendously interested in,” Browne said. “All of these things are extremely important, not so much in themselves perhaps but in the total picture.”

“I am most interested in the books,” Eureka College President George A. Hearne said of the collection.”

Former President Richard M. Nixon’s book “Leaders” bears a simple inscription: “To President Reagan. Another Great Leader.” A volume from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) about the role of Irish politicians is dated St. Patrick’s Day, 1981, and reads: “For our Irish President from his fellow Irishman.”

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Beside the gifts the Reagans have received, they have given the college samples of the gifts the two have bestowed on friends and supporters. Almost all are in blue boxes with a gold presidential seal and signature. Among them, a tiny piece of the cork floor removed from the Oval Office in 1969 and preserved in Lucite, a presidential golf ball, a jar of jelly beans and a yo-yo.

A brass belt buckle that depicts a bronco-busting Reagan on the White House lawn bears the words “The buckaroo stops here” and represents the “close connection” Reagan felt with the Southwest, said Lynn Beer, a Eureka College administrator. Beer, like Hearne, stressed the “special relationship Reagan has maintained with Eureka College” since his college days that began six decades ago.

Although they have yet to arrive, Eureka College president Hearne said he “already can see a set of large black-and-white photographs of Reagan on the walls of the (campus center) the college has yet to build.” The center will, among other things, house the permanent display the college is planning about its most famous graduate.

Eureka already possesses a collection of black-and-white stills, many curling from age, from Reagan’s movie days. A photograph from the 1940 film “Knute Rockne--All American” in which Reagan played Notre Dame footballer George Gipp appears not only in the memorabilia collection but in a college promotional brochure. An assortment of footballs recently shipped from the White House includes a pigskin signed “One for the Gipper” by a host of Heisman Trophy winners.

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For James Combs, a political scientist at Indiana’s Valparaiso University who studies the role of popular culture in politics, the artifacts to be displayed at Eureka College are valuable as symbols of popular culture “which Reagan more than any other President has understood and used.”

“I think a lot of people are sorry to see Reagan go because he reminded them of an idyllic America in which there were no problems, no troubles (and) in which we had a bright rosy future. Queen Elizabeth once said that the royal family was in the happiness business. The Reagans have been our popular royalty.”


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