Tonight the Republican Party of Iowa hosts its annual Ronald Reagan Dinner. Five of the GOP presidential candidates will speak at the dinner named for the fortieth president, an adopted Iowan.
Reagan, whose centennial birthday is being marked this year, came to Iowa in 1932 after graduating from Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois to work as a radio sports announcer. He was hired by station WOC in Davenport and his first assignment was to announce the Iowa-Minnesota homecoming game in Iowa City on October 22. The Hawkeyes lost to the Gophers, 6 to 21.
Reagan’s temporary part-time job became a full-time job in 1933. In his autobiography, Reagan, who would come to be known as “the great communicator,” admits that his early broadcasting days were rather rough. He had a stiff on-air delivery and he stumbled over his words. With some coaching and determination, he improved and salvaged his job which was on the line. After WOC merged with its sister station, WHO radio, Reagan moved to Des Moines where he made $75 a week, a small fortune during the Great Depression. WHO had just been licensed as a 50,000-watt clear channel stations, one of only 15 in the country at that time.
Reagan had friends in Des Moines who introduced him to horseback riding, an activity he continued to love throughout his adult life. During his time in Iowa’s capital city, the future president enrolled in a series of home-study Army Extension Courses and then enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve in April 1937, as a Private assigned to Troop B, 322nd Cavalry with the idea that instead of having to pay to go pleasure riding, he could ride horses and serve his country.
In the spring of 1937, Reagan traveled to California to cover the Chicago Cubs during training season as a broadcaster for WHO radio. While there he arranged a screen test. Within two days of returning to Iowa he received a telegram offering him a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers at $200 week. By early June, the 26-year old Reagan moved to California and was cast in the first of his 53 movies.
Reagan took his Midwestern worldview with him to Hollywood and the qualities of hard work and fair play served him well. He was working actor who, after serving stateside in World War II with the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California, became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947 in order to fight the infiltration of Communists in the movie industry. He was deeply concerned about the influence of films on Americans and American culture. Reagan served seven one-year terms between 1947 and 1960 and credited his time as SAG president with launching his political career.
In 1960, Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and six years later was elected to the first of two terms as governor of California. He narrowly lost his bid to become the GOP candidate in 1976, losing to President Gerald R. Ford who had come into the White House following the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Ford lost the 1976 general election to President Jimmy Carter, but Reagan won the party’s nomination in 1980 and went on to be elected to two terms as president, winning the electoral votes of every state but Minnesota, the home state of his challenger, in his second election.
His administration was marked by an assassination attempt just three months after his inauguration which nearly cost him his life, and by bringing about an end to the Cold War. Reagan entered into nuclear arms treaties with the Soviets then, in a speech delivered in June 1987 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Reagan challenge the Soviet Head of State, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Berlin Wall fell two years later and the U.S.S. R. fell apart.
Although Iowa can claim Reagan as an adopted, favorite son, Reagan grew up in Dixon, Illinois. One of the homes the Reagan family lived in has been preserved by a non-profit foundation and is open to the public as a museum. Docents take small groups of visitors on brief tours through the house and share biographical information about Reagan and his family. It is an easy trek off I-80, just 3 hours and 40 minutes from Des Moines
Located on South Hennepin Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home and Visitors Center is open between April and November Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5.
With luck, prayer and hard work, one of tonight’s speakers may be the next occupant of the White House, and —like Reagan—someday conservatives will beat a path to his or her hometown to better understand their childhood roots.
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