My Two Minutes with Reagan
I was only 10 years old when I met President Ronald Reagan. For me, back then the world was a blur of wonder and amazement. We had just moved out of the city, and straight into the country. My granddaddy had purchased nearly 12 acres of undeveloped land, and together moved his entire family, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandparents had three children, two boys and one girl, all of which were married and had their own children. I was the oldest of five cousins, and at 10 years old, living in the country, there wasn’t much interest in politics. I was more interested in racing my brand-new electric wheelchair up and down the dirt road!
My grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in the Golden age of the 30s, 40s and 50s. My grandmother was well known to have two heroes. Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan.
My first memory of what the president of the United States actually was, comes from the fourth grade. It was the fall of 1980 and the teacher had engaged the class into a mock election, to parallel and demonstrate the real presidential election currently happening. Not really knowing anything about the candidates, I remember casting my vote for Jimmy Carter.
When Ronald Reagan did indeed win the presidency in 1980, my grandmother was overjoyed and told me all about when he was an actor, back when she was younger. She would talk about his movies and how handsome he was, and was probably the first person to ever tell me why he was called “the Gipper”.
I remember watching the television with her in 1981 when he was shot. She stay tuned to every detail, watching, no doubt with the whole world, holding our breath as we prayed as a nation for the safety of not only a good president, but a good man.
Seeing him returning to deliver the state of the union address, only a short few months after he was shot, and the standing ovation that seem to go forever, certainly sealed the image of a hero to this 10-year-old boy.
It was about this time that my grandmother started pondering the idea of trying to arrange a meeting with President Reagan. I clearly remember the day she asked me, “Jerry, would you like to meet the president?”. I know I gave her the strangest of looks. The kind of “yeah, sure” look. And said “why”?
She convinced me that she was serious and that if I was interested, she would try to make it happen. Obviously, I said yes, but then I really didn’t give it much thought after that.
Sure enough, my grandmother sent a letter to the office of Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton and told him about me and my story. They initially wanted to set up a meeting at the White House, but that was proving difficult to schedule. There was also a matter of having this meeting cleared through Secret Service. After the attempt on Reagan’s life less than one year earlier, security was very tight. However, after three months of phone calls, negotiations and approvals, Sen. Denton’s team suggested that instead of the White House, it might be easier to arrange a meeting at the Alabama state capital in Montgomery, where Pres. Reagan was to attend the following week.
When my grandmother told me the news, I was speechless. I kept thinking, how in the world my grandmother could make this happen. She had always taught me to never give up. Her persistence was certainly admirable, but also contagious. She was always saying, “cain’t never could do nothing”, and “try, try again”, or “you ain’t got nothing to lose”. Of course she would always be first to tell you that “ain’t ain’t a word”! 🙂
So, with everything set, Monday morning, March 15, 1982, my grandmother, my dad and I packed a lunch and headed to Montgomery. When we got there, it appeared that no one knew who we were. After an hour of driving around the the Montgomery Civic Center, we finally made contact with the right people and was told that only one person could accompany me to meet the president. Without any debate, my grandmother was the choice. My dad remained on the street and was one of the many people in the crowds as the president’s motorcade passed by.
My grandmother and I were rushed to the Civic Center parking deck, where they had taken two parking spaces and covered them with carpet, and hung curtains around the spaces against one outer wall, creating a small private room. In this room was a couch, a chair and a small table.
My grandmother and I didn’t have to wait very long until we were hearing the sounds of many cars as the president’s motorcade was pulling up right outside this makeshift room. I remember wearing a cowboy hat that day, but to be respectful, I took it off at this point. The next thing I know, several men come through the open curtain and start piling into the room and onto the couch. They were all photographers taking a steady stream of photos with a constant barrage of flashes. Then a few more men walked in that I did not know. Then, seeming much shorter than I imagined, in walked President Ronald Reagan. There he stood, right in front of me, with his typical rosy cheeks, perfect hair and a warm smile. One of the other men introduced himself as Sen. Jeremiah Denton, and thus introduced me to the president.
We shook hands as he said he was glad to meet me and that Sen. Denton had been telling him about me and my grandmother. Of course my grandmother was just thrilled, and told him how much she appreciated and supported him, and how much she loved his movies. Like a proud grandmother, she bragged on her grandson. She even said I was the president of my class, which I wasn’t, but she was living her dream and who was I to spoil it.
My grandmother had bought me a red autograph book, and a red ballpoint pen just for the occasion. I of course, ask him if I could have his autograph. Of course without any hesitation, he said he would be delighted. With all the excitement and anticipation, my grandmother finally asked if she could have a hug, and of course being the charming man as he was, he put one arm around her shoulder and posed for a picture, smiling, laughing and joking the whole time.
In a matter of only about two minutes, he had to go, and the meeting was over. My grandmother and I were carried a room with a couch and a TV, where we watched the president give his speech. We asked if we could go into the main room and see the president give his speech directly, but we were not allowed. After the president finished speaking and left the premises, we were allowed to go into the main room where we met again with Sen. Denton. After we finally met back up with dad, Sen. Denton assigned one of his staff to give us all a tour of the state capital, and also presented me with a Republican Party wall plaque, and a second one for my school. He also gave us all kinds of pictures and books about President Reagan and the history of the state capital.
By the time we got home, late in the evening, a reporter from the Birmingham news had already been told about the meeting. Coming out to our home that night, the reporter interviewed my grandmother and I for the newspaper article titled “Pinson lad meets Pres. Reagan”.
Looking back, I remember just how patriotic Ronald Reagan made us feel. He was a God-fearing Christian man who felt the weight of responsibility placed upon his shoulders. He led the nation in a way that inspired goodness and kindness in people. There are many people who understand the words of the Constitution, but Ronald Reagan was someone who understood the spirit of the Constitution. He loved America with a special kind of love, and understood with all clarity that America was and still is the last best hope for a peaceful world.
The legacy that Ronald Reagan left us will never be forgotten, and I will certainly never forget how honored I felt to meet this man. It is two minutes of my life that I will never forget.