By Reggie Ellis
Millions of Americans watched last Friday as former President Ronald Wilson Reagan's funeral services took place at Washington National Cathedral.
As heads of state and international leaders paid their respects before he was laid to rest, some Exeter residents remember witnessing the beginning of Reagan's political ascension to become the 40th leader of our great nation.
By 1947, then actor Ronald Reagan had been the head of one of the most influential unions -- the Screen Actors Guild. He was a social Democrat with "laissez faire" economic ideology. After his marriage with actress Jane Wyman failed in 1948, Reagan married another actress, Nancy Davis, in 1952. They had two children: Patricia Ann and Ronald Prescott. Beginning in 1954, Reagan became the spokesman for General Electric, hosting a series of TV dramas. He also traveled giving speeches to businessmen around the country.
A gifted storyteller, Reagan's anecdotal speeches became more serious, focusing on national issues such as free market enterprise and anti-Communism in 1962.
In 1964, Reagan became the poster boy for compassionate conservatism. He campaigned around the country fund-raising for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The front page of the Oct. 8, 1964 issue of The Exeter Sun read, "Reagan To Attend GOP Barbecue," in bold letters near the top of the page. The first line read, "Movie and television star, Ronald Reagan, will be the guest of honor at the Goldwater barbecue beef dinner to be held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Gill of Exeter, on Saturday, October 17."
Don and Helen Pinkham were both present at the barbecue. Don who, along with his father Ebben, owned E.B. Pinkham and Son packing house in Exeter, was asked to pick up Robert Goldwater, the candidate's brother, from the Visalia airport for the event. In the midst of the Emperor Grape packing season, Don led Robert on a tour of the packing house. Reagan was expected to arrive later from another speaking engagement in Hanford.
"All the packers were expecting to meet Reagan, so when they saw Goldwater they were ticked off," he said. "Some wouldn't even talk to the guy and others were respectful shaking his hand."
The western-style dinner was held in the pasture behind the home of Adolph and Clory Gill. Helen was in charge of the decorations committee and had set up hay bales and draped most everything in red oil cloth. Goldwater spoke first, while Reagan had just arrived so quietly, that Don said many hadn't realized he was there. Then Reagan spoke at the dinner captivating the audience with his down-to-earth demeanor. Don and Helen said Reagan spent the next hour talking to small groups of about five people.
"Four or five of us were just talking like people do and he just started in the conversation like he was one of the guys," Don said. "He had that ability. He wasn't stand-offish, but came across as sincere. I think that's the way he really was. What you see is what you get with Reagan."
The Republican party wanted to raise $8,500 in Tulare County. More than 1,200 people attended the barbecue to see the combination of Reagan and the candidate's brother. The Oct. 22 story reported that Reagan gave "an inspirational speech … in which he extolled the philosophy of Barry Goldwater and belabored the bad image the Democratic administration has created." Reagan's speech helped raise $9,300 for the party.
Just days after the fund-raiser in Exeter, Reagan delivered a passionate and powerful endorsement of Goldwater and hard-line rhetoric against Communism that many experts have pinpointed as his arrival in the national political scene. "As a former Democrat, I can tell you … that the leadership of [the Democratic] party was taking the party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland down the road under the banners of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin," Reagan said in a nationally televised speech on Oct. 27, 1964. He continued: "We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, 'Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.'"
Johnson went on to win the 1964 presidential election carrying 61 percent of the vote. While Goldwater could only garner 38 percent, Reagan's speech propelled him into the political arena. He would be elected California's governor in 1966.
"We picked out the very best grapes and shipped them to Sacramento after he was elected," Don said.
In 1968 he finished third in the race for the Republican presidential nomination behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. In 1970 he was re-elected to his second term as governor. In 1976 he came within 60 votes of winning the nomination over President Gerald Ford. The third time would be the charm and charm was not in short supply. Of course he wouldn't need much to defeat Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter -- whose imaged suffered from high inflation, high unemployment and the taking of American hostages in Iran -- in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan won with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Reagan went into the history books as the man who brought down the Berlin Wall and won the Cold War during his two terms as president. The media coverage of his week-long funeral ceremonies is a testament to the dedication of his legions of followers.
Not since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has there been such an outpouring of emotion for the passing of a president. If Kennedy will be remembered as the king of Camelot then Reagan will be the crusader against Communism.
Helen said her impression of Reagan didn't change from 1964 to 1994.
"He was always very personable and friendly," she said. "I think he became better at what he did with experience but he always appeared very approachable."
Exeter was one of many, almost all, cities and counties across California that closed on Friday in observance of the former governor and president's funeral. The Postal Service also shut down its branches and headquarters on Friday in observance.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order declaring Friday, June 11, 2004, a Day of Mourning in California to honor the life and legacy of former President Reagan. State agencies and offices were closed for the day of his funeral.
"On this very spot, right here, on January 2, 1967, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 33rd governor of the great state of California," Schwarzenegger said in a June 7 speech. "As our Governor, he renewed the promise of our Golden State, and in these chambers, his legacy still echoes with mighty force."
While it will be many years before Reagan's legacy is decided in the history books, Exeter can always say it met the man before he became a legend.