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Illinois 200: Reagan's 'quintessential' story began at Eureka College

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  • Ted Kerrn of Bloomington stands at attention after playing bagpipes during the wreath-laying ceremony in the Eureka College Ronald Reagan Peace Garden to honor First Lady Nancy Reagan in March 2016.

    Ted Kerrn of Bloomington stands at attention after playing bagpipes during the wreath-laying ceremony in the Eureka College Ronald Reagan Peace Garden to honor First Lady Nancy Reagan in March 2016.
    The Pantagraph

  • Ronald Reagan in his freshman year class photo in 1928.

    Ronald Reagan in his freshman year class photo in 1928.

  • President Ronald Reagan gives a commencement speech to Eureka College students in 1982.

    President Ronald Reagan gives a commencement speech to Eureka College students in 1982.

  • Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet Union president, left, and J. David Arnold, former Eureka College president, walk in the Ronald Reagan Peace Garden on March 27, 2009.

    Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet Union president, left, and J. David Arnold, former Eureka College president, walk in the Ronald Reagan Peace Garden on March 27, 2009.

 
By Lenore Sobota
Of the Pantagraph

Illinois might be known as the Land of Lincoln, but another president with Illinois roots holds sway around the central Illinois city of Eureka, home to Ronald Reagan's alma mater.

Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932. He went on to become a sports broadcaster, movie and television actor, governor of California and the 40th president of the United States.

"The Reagan story is the quintessential Illinois story," said Michael Murtagh, the college's vice president for institutional advancement. "He is a person who came from small-town Illinois and made a difference in the world."

Like Lincoln, "one of the things he offers is the understanding that an individual from humble beginnings can rise to a position where he has an impact on the world," said Mike Thurwanger, head of the Reagan Leadership Program at the college.

Reagan faced financial struggles, went to college on a "needy student" scholarship while also working, and had a father with a drinking problem, Murtagh said.

"His life struggles exemplify many of the life struggles our students still face," he said. "He is proof that you can overcome that kind of thing. Reagan's life is something students can relate to."

Thurwanger said Reagan's "Midwestern and Illinois values colored the way he approached things" and some allies and critics would like to see a return to some of what Reagan was known for, such as his ability to "work across the aisle, which we don't seem to be doing today."

Signs of Reagan's life both before and after his graduation can be seen on campus -- and not just in the Reagan Museum that opened in 1994 in the Cerf Center.

There is the chapel where Reagan gave his first speech as a college freshman.

"The chapel hasn't changed a lot," said Murtagh "The pews have been removed, but the feel is still there."

For Murtagh, the Reagan Peace Garden stands out.

Dedicated in May 2000, the garden contains a bronze bust of a smiling Reagan by artist Lonnie Steward and a 5-by-4-foot section of the Berlin Wall, given by the Federal Republic of Germany.

Around the base that holds the bust are quotes from Reagan's 1982 commencement address, at which he outlined his plans for seeking peace with the Soviet Union and for strategic arms reduction, with a goal of "dismantling the nuclear menace."

"Peace is not the absence of conflict but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means," reads one of the quotes.

The impact of Reagan teaming with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War is not lost on Thurwanger and Murtagh.

"Both of us are Cold War veterans," said Thurwanger, noting that he and Murtagh each served in the military for 20 years. "I'm not sure the current generation has a full grasp of his importance" in ending the Cold War.

A plaque in front of the section of the Berlin Wall contains the famous quote from Reagan's 1987 visit to West Berlin: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Gorbachev dismissed the role that Reagan played in the eventual dismantling of the wall. But during a visit to Eureka College in 2009, the former Soviet leader said, "When all is said and done, he was a great man."

Gorbachev is among many dignitaries, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who have visited Eureka College over the years because of the Reagan connection and the efforts of the Ronald Reagan Society at Eureka College to preserve his legacy.

Another way that legacy is continued is through the Reagan Leadership Program, which provides scholarships and mentorships to students.

"Our goal is developing all students so they leave as leaders," Thurwanger said.

Speaking at the 1982 commencement, 50 years after his own graduation, Reagan said, "Everything that's been good in my life began here."

It was at Eureka College that Reagan gave his first speech as a 17-year-old freshman. He called for a vote of the student body on a student strike over a campus dispute with the college president and the board of trustees -- a board on which he would later serve as an alumnus.

A double major in economics and sociology, Reagan also competed on the football and swim teams, acted in 14 plays, served in student government and was a fraternity member.

Reagan admitted his involvement in athletics might have drawn attention away from academics. "Even now I wonder what I'd have accomplished if I'd studied harder," he quipped in that 1982 commencement speech, during his first term in the White House.

Murtagh has a different view.

Calling such involvement "a critical component" of Reagan's education, Murtagh said, "Students more than ever need to be participants" to develop their leadership and communications skills.

As Reagan said in a 1982 interview with Pantagraph columnist Bill Flick: "One thing about a small school: You can't hide. Students were drafted into those things and found horizons broadened and found themselves able to do things that they never would have attempted."

• Lenore Sobota of the Pantagraph, based in Bloomington, can be reached at lsobota@pantagraph.com. Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at dailyherald.com/topics/Illinois-Bicentennial/.

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