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Ronald Reagan

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Official picture of Ronald Reagan from 1985.

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan. (June 3, 1985)

(Picture from the Ronald Reagan Library, courtesy of the National Archives)

Who Was Ronald Reagan?

Republican Ronald Reagan became the oldest President elected when he took office as the 40th President of the United States. The actor turned politician served two terms as President, from 1981 to 1989.

Dates:

February 6, 1911 -- June 5, 2004

Also Known As:

Ronald Wilson Reagan, "the Gipper," "the Great Communicator"

Growing Up During the Great Depression

Ronald Reagan grew up in Illinois. He was born in Tampico then when he was nine, his family moved to Dixon. After graduating from Eureka College in 1932, Reagan worked as a radio sports announcer for WOC radio in Davenport.

Reagan the Actor

While visiting California in 1937 to cover a sports event, Reagan was asked to play a radio announcer in the film Love Is on the Air, which jump started his film career. For a number of years, Reagan worked on as many as four to seven movies a year. By the time he acted in his last film, The Killers in 1964, Reagan had appeared in over 50 films and had become a very famous movie star.

Marriage and World War II

Though Reagan stayed busy during those years with acting, he still had a personal life. On January 26, 1940, Reagan married actress Jane Wyman. They had two children: Maureen (1941) and Michael (1945, adopted).

In December 1941, right after the U.S. entered into World War II, Reagan was drafted into the army. His near-sightedness kept him from the front so he spent three years in the army working for the Motion Picture Army Unit making training and propaganda films.

By 1948, Reagan's marriage to Wyman was having major problems. Some believe it was because Reagan was becoming very active in politics. Others thought perhaps he was too busy with his work as president of the Screen Actors Guild which he was elected to in 1947. Or it could have been the trauma in June 1947 when Wyman gave birth four months prematurely to a baby girl who did not live. Though no one knows the exact reason the marriage went sour, Reagan and Wyman divorced in June 1948.
Nearly four years later, on March 4, 1952, Reagan married the woman he would spend the rest of his life with, actress Nancy Davis. Their love for one another was obvious. Even during Reagan's years as president, he would frequently write her love notes. In October 1952 their daughter Patricia was born and in May 1958 Nancy gave birth to their son Ronald.

Reagan Becomes a Republican

By 1954, Reagan's film career had slowed down and he was hired by General Electric to host a television program and to make celebrity appearances at GE plants. He spent eight years doing this job, making speeches and learning about people around the country.

After actively supporting Nixon's campaign for president in 1960, Reagan switched political parties and officially became a Republican in 1962. In 1966, Reagan successfully ran for governor of California and served two consecutive terms.

Though already governor of one of the largest states in the union, Reagan continued to look at the bigger picture. At both the 1968 and 1974 Republican National Conventions, Reagan was considered a potential presidential candidate.

For the 1980 election, Reagan won the Republican nomination and successfully ran against incumbent President Jimmy Carter for president. Reagan also won the 1984 presidential election against Democrat Walter Mondale.

Reagan's First Term as President

Only two months after taking office as President of the United States, Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981 by John W. Hinckley, Jr. outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. Hinckley was copying a scene from the movie Taxi Driver, strangely believing that this was going to win him actress Jodie Foster's love. The bullet barely missed Reagan's heart. Reagan remains well remembered for his good humor both before and after the surgery to remove the bullet.

Reagan spent his years as President attempting to cut taxes, lessen people's reliance on government, and increase national defense. He did all these things. Plus, Reagan met several times with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and made the first major move forward in the Cold War when the two agreed to jointly eliminate some of their nuclear weapons.

Reagan's Second Term as President

In Reagan's second term in office, the Iran-Contra Affair brought scandal to the presidency when it was discovered that the government had traded weapons for hostages. Though Reagan initially denied knowing about it, he later announced that it was "a mistake." It is possible that memory losses from Alzheimer's had already begun.

Retirement and Alzheimer's

After serving two terms as President, Reagan retired. However, he was soon officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's and instead of keeping his diagnosis secret, he decided to tell the American people in an open letter to the public on November 5, 1994.

Over the next decade, Reagan's health continued to deteriorate, as did his memory. On June 5, 2004, Reagan passed away at the age of 93.

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