“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT!!!” – RONALD REAGAN AT 100
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Sunday, February 6, 2011, marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.
I first learned of Ronald Reagan in the 1950s, because many of his old movies were on television. In “Knute Rockne – All-American,” Reagan’s portrayal of George Gipp forever cast him as the "Gipper."
Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in November of 1966. At the time, this was very big news at the Virginia Military Institute, where I was a cadet. Reagan had a role in a very schmaltzy movie about VMI, “Brother Rat” (1938), and we were very familiar with that flick.
During my senior year at VMI (1969), I invited Governor Reagan to speak at VMI, but he declined. I still have the letter that he signed and mailed to me.
In 1979, the Birmingham, Alabama Jaycees invited Reagan to speak – and he accepted! I shook hands with him, and I remember his iron grip and his impressive physical stature. Reagan was tall, handsome, and rugged. And, he had a friendly face that never met a stranger.
I also remember the little conversation that I had with the future president. I said, “Hello, Brother Rat,” a reference to his "VMI" movie (and a term of affection between VMI classmates). Reagan paused, smiled, and replied: “Yes, but you’re a real one,” and of course I was.
When President Reagan announced that he would run for a second term, I decided I would try to attend the Republican National Convention that year as a delegate (1984). Easier said than done!
I had to qualify for the Republican primary, which involved collecting more than 500 signatures of registered voters in my congressional district. Then, the President’s re-election committee had to select me for the ballot. And finally, I had to receive more votes than three other candidates. Somehow, I succeeded. I still have a copy of the paper ballot: There, seven names above my name, is the name of President Reagan!
Linda and I attended the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, that August, and we had the time of our lives.
The Tennessee delegation was seated not far from the podium and next to the band. When President and Mrs. Reagan were introduced on the last night of the convention, the band broke out into a rousing rendition of “California, Here I Come.” Moments later, the great Ray Charles performed his vocal version of this American standard. It was thrilling.
Back home, President Reagan visited Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in September to wish the legendary Roy Acuff a “Happy Birthday.” Linda and I were there.
In the large picture, you can see the President at the podium, to the left and a little above the “N” in Nebraska. (Mrs. Reagan, Ray Charles, and the President are shown on the large screen above the podium.) In the lower right, at right, are President Reagan and Roy Acuff on the stage of the Grand Old Opry.
Thanks for reading this long memoir, and thanks for stopping by!
Also by Richard Knight
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