From Whiteside County to the White House: President Ronald Reagan's journey began in Illinois

Ronald Reagan went from a major league baseball announcer, to a Hollywood movie star, to a corporate pitchman, to Governor of California to President of the United States. Along the way, he became world famous as an actor, emerged as a leader of the conservative movement, governed a state at a time when it seemed to be spiraling out of control, challenged two incumbent presidents, survived an assassination attempt, saved the American economy and won the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan did all these things and more. But his story begins right here in Illinois.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, like many American presidents, was born in the most humble of places: a small apartment over a bakery in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. The Reagan family soon made the first of many moves, relocating to a small house in town, before picking up and moving to Chicago.

Reagan’s father, Jack, changed jobs frequently, and like many Midwestern families of that era, the Reagans struggled to make ends meet. While Jack toiled to support the family and fought the demons of alcoholism, Reagan’s mother, Nelle, raised Ronald and his brother, Neil. Through the difficult times, Nelle Reagan taught the boys to hold to their Christian faith, that things would turn out all right. Reagan’s White House aide Peggy Noonan wrote that he, “breathed it in and it helped shape his temperament, which was trusting and placid.” It was the beginning of the sunny optimism for which Reagan would become famous.

Reagan learned at an early age what it was like to be poor, but also learned to work to rise above hardship. While Jack and Nelle Reagan labored to raise their sons in lean times, they were also mindful that there were others even less fortunate than they. Having grown up in a time of intense discrimination against the Irish, Jack taught his sons to despise prejudice. Nelle taught the boys the importance of charity to the less fortunate, while helping the downtrodden get back on their feet. Seeing how hard his father worked to support the family, and heeding his message about taking care of oneself and not expecting others to do it for him, Reagan learned the importance of hard work and the dangers of a life of dependency. These were among the Midwestern ideals he would carry with him throughout his life.

The nomadic Reagans continued to move from town to town, back to Tampico, to Monmouth, to Galesburg, and finally Dixon, where the Reagan Boyhood Home still stands. The house in Dixon was rented by the Reagans for $15 a month until 1923, when they moved across town. Ronald Reagan would call Dixon home until he went off to school at Eureka College near Peoria.

In Dixon, Reagan became a football star, discovered acting, and took a job as a lifeguard on the nearby Rock River. During his service there, he is credited with saving 77 lives. Local lore suggests that at least a few of the 77 were not truly drowning, but were young ladies who simply wanted to meet the handsome Reagan up close.

Graduating from Eureka in 1932, Reagan ran smack dab into the Great Depression. His father had been laid off again, this time on Christmas Eve, and the family was looking to Ronald for help. He hitchhiked to Chicago to find work, but was not successful. Arriving back in Dixon after hitchhiking in the rain, he sought work at a local department store, but was denied. He had acted in college plays and had been told he had a bright future in the field, but did not know how to get started. It was then that he struck a golden idea: he would combine his speaking talent with his love of sports and become a sports broadcaster.

Traveling from station to station, Reagan finally found an opening at WOC in the Quad Cities, where he was hired for his first job in radio. From there, the rest is history: from little WOC to the powerful WHO in Des Moines, broadcasting Chicago Cubs games, then out to California to cover spring training, where Reagan and Hollywood discovered each other. Ronald Reagan’s self-made man, rags-to-riches story is all-American in its quality, and it is one which changed the course of American and world history when this optimistic Midwesterner took the oath of office as President in 1981.

Reagan never forgot his Illinois roots, nor the cities and towns where he spent his formative years. He made a famous visit back to Dixon as President, and even filled in for Harry Caray on a Cubs broadcast in 1988, quipping that he would be looking for another job in a few months. Today, northwestern Illinois continues to honor its favorite son. In 1999, the Illinois General Assembly created the Ronald Reagan Trail, connecting all the Reagan sites in northwestern Illinois, from his birthplace to his college.