I was eleven years old when I drafted him a simple letter for a school assignment. Write a letter to your hero, said my teacher.
A few months slipped by, and long after I had stopped sprinting to peek inside our mailbox, President Ronald Reagan responded with a letter of his own.
I have saved that letter from The White House, along with a signed photograph of him riding horseback. Most remarkable to me is that he signed the note simply: Ronald Reagan. No titles, no fanfare.
He was a splendid president, honest and trustworthy, but mainly humble. He preferred macaroni-and-cheese to filet mignon, and popped jelly beans with delight. Simple, steady, and comfortable with himself, he was by all accounts the same man at home on his ranch as he was in The White House or with leaders of the free world.
Dutch, a childhood nickname he preferred, had a strength and steady direction in his presidency that was coupled with kindness and understanding. The mix was certainly powerful; people that were supposed to hate him had difficulty doing so as his honest and measured words were laced with humility. Plus that magnificent smile always reaching to his eyes. He had a unique ability to honor the gravity of the presidency and any given situation appropriately, while remaining optimistic.
I grew up studying this President Reagan; admiring his dignity, love for people and animals, and the strength and courage to do what was good. He said: “I’ve prayed a lot throughout my life. Abraham Lincoln once said that he could never have fulfilled his duties as president for even fifteen minutes without God’s help. I feel the same way.” (p. 317 When Character was King by Peggy Noonan.)
He was also remarkable in his vast amount of handwritten letters to people all over the world. Ronald Reagan was actually considered the most prolific writer of all presidents since Thomas Jefferson. The Great Communicator was he.
By the end of his time in office, however, he began to gently slip, and was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
A friend once told me a heartbreaking story that I have held close. During his illness, and after his presidency, President Reagan was invited to the White House for a dinner. During that evening, a supporter approached him with a gift, placing a small replica of the White House into his open hands.
This is for you, Mr. President. Thank you for serving our country well. I admire you so much and wanted you to know.
As it goes, Reagan held the tiny likeness in his hands, and after an appropriate thank-you, continued to stare at the gift.
I know I am holding something that is supposed to be important to me. It seems like something I should remember, he said, confused.
Last week I was driving a busy road, thinking about what needed to be done, and pronto. The radio was humming, but I was focused on my to-do’s.
Driving along, I noticed a middle-aged woman walking briskly along the road and waving. Her lovely coffee-colored skin was set off with a bright smile. She looked directly at each passing car and waved. I waved back and surprised myself by honking the horn to which she clapped, her smile broadening. The whole moment lasted a few seconds, and I found myself cheered.
Since that time, I have passed her twice, as up and down the road she travels, waving to every person with delight and abandon.
We might forget the kind words we speak to another, or the hand-written notes we stamp and send. But small kindnesses, done only to lift others, will change the course of someone’s day. You just never know.
President Reagan lost all of his memory, but I remember. His written words watered a small seed in my eleven-year-old soul. I write to remember.
That woman, smiling big and waving, changed my day. Because of her, I slowed down and remembered how important kindness is. Sour grapes are a bitter and unattractive poison. Our world does not need more of that, thank you very much.
Kindness always wins.
“Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God.” ~Ronald Reagan