A Mom Who Made a President

While being a mother has never been easy, the task today is particularly daunting. My wife, who is the mother of my 8-year-old and 6-year-old sons and 2-year-old daughter, learned a few months ago that she couldn’t even let her guard down during the Super Bowl.

I’d like to offer an inspiring case that might encourage moms: a mother, neglected by history, who made a president — Nelle Reagan, mother of our nation’s 40th president.

Nelle was born in Fulton, Illinois in July 1883, as was John Edward “Jack” Reagan, the man she would eventually marry on a crisp November day in 1904 at Fulton’s Church of the Immaculate Conception. Though Nelle grew up as the youngest of seven, she and Jack had only two children — Ronald and his older brother Neil.

The good-looking, carefree couple began to have problems. Jack, for one, drank too much. His son, Ronald, never forgot a brisk February evening in 1922, when the  11-year-old returned home from the YMCA. Nelle was out on a sewing job, trying to scare up a few dollars. Expecting to arrive at an empty house, he was shaken by the sight of his father sprawled in the snow on the front porch, too inebriated to make the door. “He was drunk,” his son later remembered, “dead to the world,” arms stretched out, “as if he were crucified — as indeed he was.”

Jack, a shoe salesman struggling to make a buck, uprooted the family at every turn. In February 1911, Ronald was born in an apartment above a bank in Tampico, Illinois, but lived there only four months before the family moved to a house outside of town until December 1914, when they moved again. That pattern never stopped. Even when the Reagans settled in little Dixon, Illinois, they lived in five different rentals.

Nelle endured, and held the family together. She was the rock. But that almost didn’t happen: In one of these moves, Nelle nearly died. The Reagan family occupied three different residences in Monmouth, Illinois between 1917 and 1919, when the great influenza epidemic struck. The flu hit Nelle, who very nearly perished. Ronald Reagan might never have become president if his mother lost her life that winter. She was that much of a formative figure.

Nelle learned to lean on God, and taught the same to her sons. Jack was an apathetic Catholic who left the religious rearing of the boys to his Protestant wife.

In Dixon, Nelle became a leader at the First Christian Church. Aside from the minister, she was the church’s most visible face. Among the congregation’s 14 officers, she was the only who wore two hats, and often more than two, whether directing the choir, missionary society, the nursery, or some other function. The vigorous congregation boasted 14 Sunday school classes; Nelle’s was the largest, even exceeding the pastor’s.

Nelle’s commitment was never restricted to Dixon. She regularly offered a hand to needy churches in the area, not to mention tuberculosis patients in sanitariums and prisoners in the county jail. “Lemme tell you,” one Dixon resident observed, “Nelle was a saint.” That was not a rare sentiment. Another added: “Nelle was too good for this world.”

Both inside and outside the church, Nelle was in demand for her readings. She possessed an engaging voice and natural acting qualities. “Mrs. Reagan is one of Dixon’s favorite readers,” the July 29, 1925 “Dixon Telegraph” informed, “and has appeared before many audiences, always greatly pleasing them.”

The ways in which Nelle nurtured Ronald and instilled in him the values and ideals crucial to his rise to the presidency are too numerous to recount here. (I’ve devoted an entire book to the subject.) A couple of examples, however, are worth mentioning:

The key to Ronald Reagan’s success, from radio to Hollywood to politics, was his communication skills. And yet, the Great Communicator learned to speak in his mom’s church, whether emceeing events, leading prayer services, teaching Sunday school, or performing skits with his mother in nursing homes and hospitals. One Reagan biographer emphasizes the importance of the private elocution lessons Nelle gave her young son.

In addition, Ronald Reagan was the eternal optimist. When he lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, he wasn’t deterred, unlike family, friends, and campaign staff. Nelle had taught him that everything happens for a reason dictated by God, and always for the better. All the twists and turns in the road are part of God’s plan. This gave Reagan an unflinching confidence and self-assurance that was fundamental to his entire professional life, all the way to and through the presidency.

Nelle even taught her son to look at death optimistically. This was evident in the November 1994 letter in which Ronald Reagan informed the world that Alzheimer’s disease was riding him into “the sunset of my life” — an astonishingly positive view of a condition in which one’s memories and mind waste into oblivion. Reagan had observed the same deterioration in his mother. Nelle died in November 1962 from what her family called “senility.” She and her boy shared not only the same faith but the same fate.

Mothers, take heart. Yours is a tough business; the deck is stacked against you. Nelle Reagan, too, faced trials. Yet, she persevered — and left a mark on history.