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Frequently I’m asked what surprised me most in researching President Reagan’s life for my book, “Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan.” Contrary to most of what has been written about Ronald Reagan’s father, Jack, one surprise I found in my digging was the positive impact Jack had on his son.
Almost all of the books on President Reagan devote about one sentence to his father. In this one sentence they note one negative aspect about the man, and sum him up in one word – alcoholic. Unfortunately, historians have only looked deep enough to catch a glimpse of John Edward (Jack) Reagan and not gotten a picture of the whole man.
If you look closely, you will see Jack Reagan had many admirable qualities. He also contributed to his son’s character as a man and success as a president. Some of Reagan’s best qualities can be traced back to his father, to whom Reagan said he was very close and loved dearly.
Jack’s positive influence can be seen in several ways. Reagan’s own words show a connection between lessons his father taught him when he was young and beliefs he held through his adult life.
From an early age, Jack taught his sons the value of hard work and ambition. Reagan admired his father’s solid work ethic and adopted it for himself. When Ronald Reagan was 14 years old he began working with a pick and shovel to help build and remodel houses. As a sophomore in high school, Reagan became a lifeguard, working at one of his favorite jobs for a total of seven summers. At his father’s suggestion, Reagan would cut a notch in one particular old log every time he saved someone’s life. At the end of those seven years, there were 77 notches on that log. Helping people and saving lives became a life-long mission for President Reagan. On the wall at his ranch is a watercolor painting of the river and park where he cut those notches on the log, a visible reminder of those helped so many years ago.
Reagan described his father as a proud, confident and ambitious man whose dreams had been crushed by the Depression and who consequently understood his son’s burning drive to make something of himself.
Jack Reagan was a charming man who had a way with words and knew the art of telling a story. It was from him Reagan learned to tell a wonderful story as well. Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” often used a story to simply and effectively communicate his ideas. He learned that a story is a wonderful way to convey an idea, cement it and help people remember it. People enjoyed listening to Reagan’s jokes and stories – and he knew how to get their attention and make a point at the same time.
One of the lessons Jack Regan constantly taught his son was the importance of judging people as individuals and not holding a prejudice against anyone. The Reagan family came from Ireland to America prior to the Civil War, when food was scarce and times were bleak in Ireland. They came looking for a better life. Jack Reagan was a quintessential Irishman who loved his heritage and passed his love on to his son.
During the early 1900s, there was bigotry and discrimination against the Irish and Catholics. Jack Reagan was often on the receiving end of this discrimination and hated to see others treated the same way. Once when Jack was out of town selling shoes, he slept a night in his car during a winter blizzard rather than stay in the only hotel in town because they would not allow Jewish customers. From his own experience, there was born in Jack strong beliefs against ethnic and religious bigotry, which he passed onto his son.
Along with his stand against bigotry, Reagan says his father believed passionately in the rights of the individual and the working man. Writing about his father, Reagan said, “Among the things he passed on to me were the belief that all men and women, regardless of their color or religion, are created equal and that individuals determine their own destiny; that is, it’s largely their own ambition and hard work that determine their fate in life.”
As an actor in Hollywood, Reagan became involved in the Screen Actors Guild. He eventually became president of SAG, trying both to stop young actors from being taken advantage of by the studios, and then stopping the infiltration of Communists in the movie industry. This belief in the rights of the individual would be one of his major themes in his life and presidency.
“Throughout my life,” Reagan said, “I guess there’s been one thing that’s troubled me more than any other: the abuse of people and the theft of their democratic rights, whether by a totalitarian government, an employer or anyone else.” He credits his father for instilling those beliefs in him.
Ronald Reagan had a reverence for the dignity and sanctity of all human life. Reagan described Jack as “fiercely humanitarian,” and the same could be said of his son. Reagan’s pro-life stance came first and foremost from a belief in the rights of the individual, saying, “Abortion has denied them the first and most basic of human rights. We are all infinitely poorer for their loss.” He also said that, “Without the right to life, no other rights have meaning.”
At this time of year we turn our eyes towards fathers and the important role they play in their children’s lives. In 1981 when president, Reagan gave a Father’s Day Proclamation in which he paid homage to fathers, undoubtedly thinking of his own: “Our fathers bear an awesome responsibility – one that they shoulder willingly and fulfill with a love that asks no recompense. By turns both gentle and firm, our fathers guide us along the path from infancy to adulthood. We embody their joy, pain and sacrifice, and inherit memories more cherished than any possession.”
He went on to say that it is on Father’s Day each year, “we express formally a love and gratitude whose roots go deeper than conscious memory can recite. It is only fitting that we have this special day to pay tribute to those men – who deserve our deepest respect and devotion. It is equally fitting, as we recall the ancient and loving command to honor our fathers, that we resolve to do so by becoming ourselves parents and citizens who are worthy of honor.”
Nelle Reagan taught her young sons that their father “had a sickness that he couldn’t control – an addiction to alcohol” and they “shouldn’t love him any less because of it.” And it appears that this is just what Ronald Reagan did. He loved his father dearly and honored him by demonstrating he had taken to heart the lessons Jack taught him when he was young. Ronald Reagan was always looking for the best in people. We would all do well to do likewise.
“Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan,” by Mary Beth Brown, is now available from WorldNetDaily.
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Mary Beth Brown is the director of Citizens United for Family and the author of the book, “Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan.br>