2016-03-09 / Features

Nancy Reagan, 94

BY JOHN TOSCANO

Nancy Reagan, whose devotion to President Ronald Reagan was legendary and whose term as First Lady at the White House brought historic changes, died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 94.

Nancy Reagan, who blossomed as a First Lady following Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the presidency in 1981, also had an auspicious beginning in life, having been born in Flushing, Queens. But that didn’t lead to anything as her struggling actress mother sent her to live with relatives in Maryland when she was only two years old.

The home she left behind a wood frame three-story structure still survives at 149-40 Roosevelt Avenue, but just barely.

Meanwhile, her parents soon divorced, but her mother remarried when Nancy was 8, to a neurosurgeon, Loyal Edward Davis, who adopted her, changing her name to Nancy Davis. A few years later, she graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts and shortly after, she too followed her mother in an acting career and after a short stint on Broadway, she headed to Hollywood.

In short order, she signed on with Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. She got some good reviews among her first roles, but nothing spectacular. But the greatest thing to come out of it was meeting Ronald Reagan. Love blossomed and eventually they married in 1952. They had two children shortly after, daughter Patti Davis, and son Ronald Prescott Reagan.

In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan became interested in politics and it eventually led to his election as Governor of California in 1967. Reagan served for two terms, concluding in 1975, when he turned his sights on becoming President of the United States.

At the beginning of the governor’s term the Reagans moved to the capital in Sacramento. But she missed the excitement, social life and mild climate they left behind. After four months in the Governor’s Mansion, fire marshals labeled the mansion as a firetrap. Mrs. Reagan quickly moved out and took up residency in a wealthy suburb, which led to charges that the first family was being snobbish. The upshot of all this was that Mrs. Reagan decided to build a ranch-style new residence as the governor’s mansion, but it wasn’t completed until the Reagans were ready to leave as the governor’s term ended.

Almost as all the fuss was going on with the housing issue, Nancy Reagan was appointed by the governor to the California Arts Commission. Shortly thereafter, she took to her new surroundings and was named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. Her schedule had her visiting veterans, the elderly and various charities. She popularized the Foster Grandparents Program in the U.S. and Australia, and expanded her work after arriving in Washington, and wrote about her experiences in her 1982 book, “To Love a Child.”

When Reagan’s term ended as governor in 1975, he decided to bypass a 3rd term and concentrate on running for President of the U.S. in 1976, challenging incumbent President Gerald Ford. Although she objected because of fears for her husband’s health, she eventually approved of his plan to run.

So she threw herself into the campaign, making herself helpful around the headquarters, holding luncheons, setting up meetings with various groups, and arranging press conferences. But in the end, Reagan lost the battle to Ford.

Four years later, Reagan was ready to go for the presidency again, and this time he succeeded in becoming president in 1980. Wife Nancy had played a key role, managing the campaign staff. After Reagan lost the first two primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nancy shook up the staff and the candidate Reagan was all for it, giving Nancy free reign. It bolstered Reagan’s confidence, and he went on to win the election and move into the White House. Nancy was all ready to take on the First Lady of the US role.

The new tenants found much to do because the White House had fallen into a state of disrepair following years of neglect. The upper room residents’ quarters showed cracked plaster and chipped paint all over. Nancy directed a renovation of the rooms, including the room next to the Oval Office and the press briefing room. The Reagans brought in a new era of designer fashions and the mansion was redecorated.

“This house belongs to all Americans, and I want it to be something of which they can be proud,” Nancy Reagan declared.

Not long after, the First Lady turned her attention to the need for new chinaware and she chose a design scheme in red with etched gold band, the plates having a raised presidential seal etched in gold in the center. The press had a field day with that.

The service totaled $209,508, but it was paid for with private donations.

Nancy Reagan also had her serious side, which gave rise to the “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign. And in 1988, she became the first First Lady invited to address the United Nations General Assembly, where she spoke on international drug interdiction and human trafficking laws.

In October 1987, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. After the surgery, more women across the U.S. had mammograms; an example of the influence the First Lady possessed.

When Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy became a staunch advocate for, and urged Pres. George W. Bush to fund, embryonic stem cell research.

In 2004, President Reagan died at the age of 93, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

SCHUMER’S STATEMENT ON PASSING OF NANCY REAGAN: U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer released the following statement on the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan: “You didn’t have to be a Reagan Republican to admire and respect Nancy Reagan. She was a tower of strength alongside her husband, had strong beliefs, and was not afraid to chart her own course politically. She persuaded her husband to support the Brady Law, and their advocacy was instrumental in helping us pass it.”

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