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With the passing of First Lady Nancy Reagan, the event made me recall a simpler time when the California Governor and his wife were on a campaign swing in Illinois. It was 1975 when Gov. Reagan and Nancy visited Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. A small Illinois community housing a large university with enrollment of 25,000 students, the surrounding towns were very similar to the small city of Dixon where Mr. Reagan was raised.
A member of Student Government and a journalist for the campus public broadcast station WSIU-FM, I was assigned an interview with Mrs. Reagan. Congressman Paul Simon introduced the Governor to university officials, fans and journalist, and I sat down for an interview in a hotel room with the First Lady. Nancy Reagan, dressed in a striking red suit, was charming, graceful, and fashionable. A petite woman, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. At a time when women's rights were very much a topic in the media, I anticipated talking to a woman with strong opinions, openly campaigning for her husband's issues. My expectations were a first lesson in interviewing.
Nancy Reagan was very much the First Lady. Carefully answering every question, but sharing very little on politics, and her husbands positions on matters of national concern. Gracefully refusing to share the limelight, I left the interview feeling it was one of my first failures in a long career.
Looking back, I realize some 40 years later, Nancy Reagan's loyalty to Ronald Reagan was being played out before my eyes. What was to become very much a part of her strongest role, to support and defend her husband, Nancy Reagan understood her role as wife, and First Lady of California and the nation.
Years later she adapted to a new role as Ronnie's caregiver, sharing a new role model for the country. As Ronald Reagan gave his goodbye's to a grieving nation five years after he left the presidency, Nancy accepted his illness with grace, humility, devotion and love. It was one of the greatest things the Reagans had done for the nation, an honest announcement of their personal life affected by Alzheimer's disease. Millions of families have had to live with loved ones and this fatal illness, of which there is no cure. The Reagans put a face to it, and sadly the nation loved them more for it. In a public announcement President Reagan wrote, "Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage." In the end, that is exactly what she did.
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