In the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, the only president born in Illinois

Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there’s a lot more to Illinois history than that. Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state all are part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois’ bicentennial. The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois’ 200th birthday on Dec. 3. Find previous stories at

On Feb. 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was riding high as he celebrated his 73rd birthday in Dixon, the county seat of Lee County and the town where he lived as a youth for a dozen years starting in 1920.

More than half a century earlier, Reagan had ventured forth from his hometown to earn a bachelor's degree at Eureka College, Class of 1932 - not an easy feat during the Great Depression.

He became a radio sports announcer in Iowa, an actor in about 50 Hollywood movies, president of the Screen Actors Guild, a television personality, and spokesman for General Electric.

Turning to politics in the 1960s, he was governor of California for two terms and, on his third try, was elected 40th president of the United States.

His hometown birthday bash in 1984 found Reagan - tall, handsome and known for his sense of humor - in good spirits as he addressed a crowd that packed Dixon High School's Lancaster Gymnasium.

His speech came after he and his wife, Nancy, rode in a parade and lunched at his boyhood home, which local residents had rushed to renovate in time for the big day.

"Birthdays are special moments, and you've given me one today," Reagan said. "But I must tell you, even though this is the 34th anniversary of my 39th birthday (the crowd laughs), those numbers don't faze me at all. I believe Moses was 80 when God first commissioned him for public service."

After more audience chuckles, Reagan continued: "And I also remember something that Thomas Jefferson once said. He said, 'We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.' And ever since he told me that - (laughter) - I've stopped worrying. There are those who say I've stopped working." (More laughter)

Reagan, known as The Great Communicator for his TV addresses to the nation from the Oval Office, could afford to poke fun at himself.

He was feeling healthy and fit, nearly three years after being shot by John Hinckley in March 1981, barely two months after his inauguration.

The economy was growing again after a tough 1982 recession.

And his re-election chances looked good. Reagan, a Republican, would go on to receive 59 percent of the vote that fall and carry 49 states in a defeat of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.

It was quite an accomplishment for the only president born in Illinois.

The son of Jack and Nelle Reagan, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in a second-floor Main Street apartment in the Whiteside County village of Tampico.

President Ronald Reagan waves as he enters St. Peter School in Geneva in 1982. He was visiting to promote tuition tax credits for private schools. Reagan briefly lived in Chicago as a child and visited the Chicago area often as president. Courtesy of Geneva Historical Society

A conservative icon to many, Reagan served from 1981 to 1989 amid trying times.

Among them, Reagan's firing in 1981 of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, the 1983 explosion at a U.S. barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Marines and sailors, the 1986 space shuttle Columbia disaster, and the Iran-Contra scandal where arms were traded for hostages.

But in Reagan's Illinois, folks remember the positives: a spirit of optimism, economic expansion, the invasion of Grenada to oust leftist revolutionaries, and nuclear arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union.

At the Ronald Reagan Birthplace, Tampico residents still serve cake every year on Reagan's birthday. A few years ago, they erected a statue of Reagan as a boy playing on a cannon in the town park.

President Ronald Reagan visits his boyhood home in Dixon with his wife, Nancy, and his brother, Neil, on Feb. 6, 1981. Dixon Telegraph

In Dixon, they're fixing up Reagan's boyhood home again. Numerous rehab projects were undertaken in 2017 to repair deteriorated parts of the house, built in 1891.

Down the street in a restored three-story brick school building, the Northwest Territory Historic Center preserves Reagan's grade-school classroom and has a display of his movie posters.

Two statues commemorate Reagan: one portrays him wearing a suit outside the boyhood home, and the other, in the city's downtown riverfront park, shows him, clad in riding clothes, astride a stallion - just as he appeared in a local parade in 1950.

An effort to erect a statue of young Reagan as a lifeguard at Dixon's Lowell Park has yet to bear fruit. Over seven summers, he rescued 77 struggling swimmers from the Rock River.

Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard for seven summers at Lowell Park in Dixon. This photo was taken by his mother in 1927 and is considered by some experts to be the most published photo of any president. Dixon Telegraph

Reagan's tough stance against communism is recalled in Dixon's downtown, where a replica of the Berlin Wall stands. Less than a year after he left office, the Cold War-era wall fell.

Reagan's name would be preserved on everything from a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to a Washington, D.C., airport, the Reagan Memorial Tollway in the Western suburbs and Dixon's Reagan Middle School.

His post-presidency, which included publishing his memoir, "An American Life," in 1990 and dedicating his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, in 1991, was dominated by Alzheimer's disease. He died at 93 in California on June 5, 2004.

All that still lay ahead as Reagan stood at the Dixon High School podium on Feb. 6, 1984, and thanked "everyone who made this terrific day possible."

Former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, wave to the crowd as they enter The Dutch Diner Family Restaurant in Tampico on Mother's Day 1992. Dixon Telegraph

The president praised the spirit of small-town America and said: "The reason I came home today was not to celebrate my birthday, but to celebrate Dixon and America. Honor, integrity and kindness do exist all across our land."

• Jim Dunn of the Sauk Valley Media can be reached at Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at

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Before Capone, John Looney was the prototypical Illinois gangster

How liquor, loose lips thwarted a plan to steal Lincoln’s body

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Memories of the Great Migration to northern Illinois

Reagan sites in northwestern Illinois

Ronald Reagan Birthplace and Museum

• 111-113 S. Main St., Tampico

• Phone: 815-438-2130

• Website:

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home

• 816 S. Hennepin Ave., Dixon

• Phone: 815-288-5176


Northwest Territory Historic Center

• 205 W. Fifth St., Dixon

• Phone: 815-288-5508

• Website:

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