Baylor Grads Remember Ronald Reagan
As the national funeral service for President Ronald Reagan concluded at 1:15 p.m. ET (12:15 p.m. CT) at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., churches across the country were asked to sound their bells 40 times in honor of the nation's 40th president. Following the tolling that marked the quarter hour, Baylor University Assistant Carillonneur Lynnette Geary rang the bells of the McLane Carillon in the tower of Pat Neff Hall 40 times in tribute to President Reagan. Hear the tolling on BaylorTV.com.
The last sentence that former Baylor University student body president Phil Lakin wrote in his journal on Sept. 22, 1988, was, "I am the luckiest guy in the world."
His words referred to the prominent part he played during the Baylor visit of President Ronald Reagan, an experience Lakin recalled fondly as he joined Americans in mourning the June 5 death of the nation's 40th president.
Now executive director of the Tulsa Community Foundation in Oklahoma, Lakin vividly remembered the excitement on the Baylor campus, surrounding Mr. Reagan's visit.
"When I first heard the news [that Reagan was coming], I really had no idea that I would play any special role in the afternoon," recalled Lakin. "I prepared, just as every other student, to camp out in the long lines so that I could get the best seat possible. Reagan was truly one of my heroes, and if he was coming to Baylor, I was going to find the best possible seat. Little did I know I would sit two seats down from him on the stage and have the chance to present him with a jacket on behalf of BU and the student body."
Meeting the President
More than 9,000 students, faculty, staff and guests packed the Ferrell Center for Reagan's visit. While awaiting the president's arrival, the event took on the fervor of a pep rally, complete with Baylor yell leaders, the Golden Wave Band and the release of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons from the ceiling.
The program began at 11:25 a.m., Lakin said, with a performance of the national anthem that was "better than I have ever heard it sung before."
"I was biting my lip and fighting back tears the whole way through - I had never been so proud to be an American as I was then - and I knew better things were yet to come," he said.
One of those "better" things was the experience of meeting a sitting U.S. President, as Lakin described in his journal:
"It all happened so fast that, when I first saw him, I didn't even believe he was real. His cheeks were rosy red, and his hair was thick and black. He was, of course, wearing one of his ugly brown suits -- oh well. He was much shorter than I expected, only about 5'9" I would guess. What an incredible sight it was, though, to see the President of the United States, with my own eyes. After watching all the broadcasts and through all the years I had 'known him, here before me stood the most important man in the world. Wow.
"From there, President Reagan greeted each one of us (about 18 or so), shaking hands with each. I was 4th or 5th in line. He said to me that it was not too long ago when he himself was Student Body President in Illinois. I replied with something like, 'I hope you are foreshadowing' and greeted him on behalf of the students. To be perfectly honest, I can't clearly recall all that he said or that I said in return. I was simply too nervous and awestruck by his mere presence. His grip was firm, but his hand and skin bore the signs of his true age. He held onto my hand for a long time."
"Our Baylor Bear in the White House"
President Reagan entered the Ferrell Center stage to the playing of "Hail to the Chief" and to a roaring welcome from the crowd. After then-Baylor President Herbert H. Reynolds presented Reagan with the Alumnus Honoris Causa, the highest award bestowed by the university upon non-alumni, it was Lakin's turn to take center stage, according to his journal:
"I went up, recited my memorized speech and presented President Reagan with a green windbreaker that said, 'Our Baylor Bear in the White House," Lakin wrote in his journal. "He told me on stage that it would be placed in his Presidential Library. I want to see it there someday.
"Afterwards, we were taken back stage. Through the suits of at least 25 Secret Service men, I watched the president leave. And he was gone.
"So ends the stay of President Reagan. What a true honor it was to have been SBP [student body president] at the time. I am the luckiest guy in the world."
Lakin's communication with the White House didn't end when President Reagan left the stage. He later received a letter from the president and a photo of the two of them shaking hands. The framed keepsakes are still featured prominently in Lakin's office.
The letter reads:
"What a pleasure it was for me to visit Baylor University. The wonderful welcome I received made me feel right at home. Many thanks, too, for the Baylor University mementos which you presented to me. These are perfect tokens of friendship from some special Americans. Mrs. Reagan joins me in sending you and your fellow students our best wishes for the future. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan."
Proud of Baylor
However, what Lakin remembers most about that September day in 1988 was how proud he was of Baylor's student body, many of whom camped out to assure that they would secure a ticket to the event.
"I had the chance to see into the faces of the people that I sat in class with, served with and lived with. The energy and excitement in the center that day was unlike anything I had experienced before or since," Lakin recalled. "People were sincerely excited to see the man that had led us into prosperity, who had comforted us during the Challenger tragedy (which occurred while I was a freshman), who led the way to end Communism, who had survived an assassination attempt (while I, and most of my classmates, were just entering high school) and who was really our leader during our most critical time of political and social awareness.
"Regardless of what he said during the speech, his mere presence made an indelible impression on all of us, and I think I can safely say that we all are indebted to him for adding life, excitement and color to our college experience," Lakin added. "For me, and many others, though, it went far beyond that - it was truly an experience of a lifetime. I shook hands with my hero. President Reagan still is and always will be a moral compass for me and a leader that I have purposefully chosen to follow."
Presidential Memories in California
While settling into his new office in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., Baylor graduate John Reid took time to reflect on the eight months he spent in 1993 as a press intern on the Reagans' staff in California. A former news anchor at WRIC-TV in Richmond, Va., Reid recently joined the staff of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) as director of communications.
After hearing the news announcing the president's death, Reid said one particular experience with President Reagan at his presidential library came to the forefront of his memory.
"I was to tell him we were ready to begin downstairs, so I went up to his office and he was out on the balcony with a Secret Service agent. They were watching the sun set and pointing things out," Reid said. "I said, 'We're ready for you downstairs,' and he said, 'Well, what are they doing over there?', and he pointed where the tomb is. I said, 'What I've heard is there's a crack in the tomb and they're fixing it.' And as I said it, I thought, 'Ugh, that's probably the wrong thing to say to him.' But he just smiled and said, 'Well, tell them to make sure that it's comfortable because I'm going to be in there for a long time.'
"That's the kind of healthy way he looked at everything - as a journey and a passage and just another part of life," Reid said.
Reid interned with the small staff of the Reagans' personal office. The press staff member, for whom he worked, was responsible for helping draft speeches and working on correspondence. Reid, who worked for no pay, said he kept begging his supervisor to let him write remarks for the Reagans.
"The speech for his 82nd birthday was one that was going to be attended by Margaret Thatcher, and I said just let me spend the weekend working on something and if you don't like it, you can throw it away," Reid said. "I got back that Monday and gave my boss the speech, and she liked it. She gave it to chief of staff, and the chief of staff liked it and gave it to Mrs. Reagan and the president, they liked it, and the next thing I knew, I was drafting most of the remarks and speeches he was giving for the rest of the time I was there."
Reid worked for the Reagans' staff five days a week but also volunteered his services on the weekend. The Reagans apparently took up Reid's offer.
"Mrs. Reagan was always very nice to me and would call me and ask me come change the light bulbs in their bedroom, can you take the dog to the vet, and can you go pick up the mail from the post office box, so I was often doing those very personal things," he said. "When I look back on it, it was an amazing year. I went into a great deal of debt financially, but the memories of it and the opportunities that came from it were fantastic."
Since his internship in 1993, Reid has stayed in contact with the president's staff and saw Mrs. Reagan several times while in Los Angeles, at Republican conventions and most recently in Washington, D.C., when the former First Lady accepted the Congressional Gold Medal. Reid described Mrs. Reagan as "very frail now but still very poised and nice."
The last time he saw President Reagan was so memorable that Reid made it their final encounter.
"I had written him a note thanking him for the chance to intern, and he came out of his bedroom while I was saying goodbye to Mrs. Reagan. He had the note in his hand and told me how much he appreciated the letter and my work," Reid recalled. "He put his hand on my shoulder and wished me good luck in television (which I had told him about several times when we were on trips). It was a great moment and one that was too perfect to try to repeat, so I never saw him again."
Reid hopes that some of his current staff members, many who are in their early 20s, will take the time this week to learn more about President Reagan and his legacy.
"This is a real opportunity to share all the challenges we faced then and how they were addressed, and I hope when it's concluded that this younger generation, that did not get to live through it or observe it, will come to the same conclusion that I have - that it really was a period of great challenges where there was no certainty about how things were going to turn out and yet dedication and commitment to principle carries the day," Reid said.