Early Life: 1911–1932
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in the small town of Tampico, Illinois, to parents John "Jack" Reagan and Nelle Wilson Reagan. Like many other boys growing up in the Midwest after the turn of the century, Ronald was of primarily Irish descent. His father was a tough Irish-American shoe salesman and his mother was of Scottish-Irish descent.Ronald used the name "Dutch" throughout most of his childhood because he disliked his given name and, according to legend, because Jack had said that his son looked like a "fat little Dutchman" when Ronald was born. Dutch had only one sibling, an older brother named Neil.
Throughout Ronald's earlier years, the Reagan family moved numerous times throughout Illinois, living in Tampico, Chicago, Galesburg, Monmouth, and finally Dixon where the family eventually settled when Ronald was nine years old. Because of the frequent moves, Dutch didn't make many, if any, lasting friendships. Instead, he looked to family for company, as did the other three Reagans. As a result, the four became a tightly-knit unit. In fact, the family was so close and familiar with each other that by the time the brothers were in high school, both had taken to calling their parents by their first names. Before moving to Dixon, Dutch was also a rather introverted boy. He enjoyed playing quietly by himself with his tin soldiers. He especially enjoyed reading books on natural history. In his memoirs, Reagan later recalled that as a child he had read his favorite book on wolves so many times that years later he could still recite the entire book word for word. He supplemented these books with a small collection of mounted butterflies that had been given to him.
The future president also recalled that the small town of Dixon, Illinois, where the family eventually settled, was the perfect place for him to spend his adolescence. At the time, Dixon was a settlement of approximately 10,000 people with a strong sense of community and amity for each other. Everyone knew each other and helped each other in times of need. Ronald also made friends in Dixon, and spent many days tromping through the woods surrounding the town, swimming and fishing in the Rock River, trapping muskrats, and getting himself into fair amounts of mischief. For example, when Dutch was eleven years old, he launched a small illegal rocket into the side of the Dixon bridge and consequently earned himself a trip to the local police station and an expensive fine. He also got himself into a fair number of fistfights with the other boys.
Ronald wasn't entirely a ruffian, however. In fact, by the age of eleven he had become fairly devout and had decided for himself that he wanted to be baptized a Disciple of Christ. His mother, Nelle, was also a Disciple of Christ, but had never pressured her sons into becoming disciples themselves, in part because she believed that each person should have the freedom to determine his or her own faith, but also because her husband Jack was Catholic. Fortunately, the religious division in the family never caused any friction, but merely taught Reagan that not everyone had the same beliefs. Nelle did, however, instill in her sons her own sense of propriety. She firmly believed in helping those less fortunate than herself and even more strongly believed in prohibition. Ironically, Jack himself was an alcoholic, but Nelle never blamed him for what she believed to be his "sickness." Dutch chose to become a disciple partly because a character in one of his favorite books, The Printer of Udell's, was a pious Christian. Ronald remained a religious man all his life.
Neither Jack nor Nelle had received much formal education in their lives. In fact, both of them had attended grammar school for only a few years. Jack had attended the American School of Proctipedics to earn his diploma in shoe sales. Throughout Reagan's childhood and adolescence, Jack dreamed of owning his own shoe department store. For the most part, however, the Reagan family was a poor family, barely able to make ends meet much of the time. On the other hand, Reagan later wrote that what his parents lacked in formal education, they made up for in "street smarts." They encouraged their sons to work hard in school and make something better of themselves as well. They found racial discrimination horrible and encouraged Neil and Ronald to bring their Jewish and African- American friends home with them even if doing so would cost them their popularity at times.
Despite his parent's encouragement to do well in school, Dutch focused more on sports than he did on anything else at Dixon's North Side High School. He particularly loved football and was respected for his spirit and work ethic even though he wasn't the greatest player. He also enjoyed acting and took the lead in several church and school plays. It was through acting that the people of Dixon realized he wasn't the quiet, introverted boy many people thought he was. Ronald became one of the most popular and well-liked boys in his school, and by his senior year he had been elected president of the student body.
Ronald Reagan entered Disciples of Christ Eureka College in 1928 in Eureka, Illinois. As in high school, he wasn't the best student because he spent most of his time participating in school activities. Once again, he also became a popular student body figure when he led a student strike to protest the college's decision to lay off teachers as the Depression approached. During his years at Eureka, Reagan was a member of the football and track teams, and served as captain of the swimming team. He was also a member of the basketball cheerleading squad. He was a yearbook editor and was elected Booster Club President and Student Body President. He also won several prestigious acting awards, too. He majored in economics and sociology and graduated from Eureka College in 1932.
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