Somewhere Over the Reagan Rainbow, Part I: “There Goes Ronald Reagan’s Body”

“They were in town interviewing people, and the whole week after he died, they had so much equipment in the birthplace that you had to walk around cords and big lights and everything. . . . And there were all kinds of people outside, inside, everywhere, because—and you had all kinds of radio stations, TVs, everything was here! It was very, very interesting, and it was kind of exciting to see so many people here, because usually we don’t have that many people in town.”

"The Reagan Rainbow" — November, 1980, Tampico, IL

These words are spoken to me from inside the Dutch Diner, so named after the fortieth president who was born just over a century ago, and less than fifty yards away, in Tampico, IL. “He looks like a fat little Dutchman,” said the future president’s father when he was born (or so says Reagan). “But who knows, he might grow up to be president someday.”

Above our heads sits a handful of 1940s movie posters starring a young, suave Reagan—Hell’s Kitchen, Night Into Night—and, opposite that wall, I spy a framed Reagan presidential portrait. Just behind us, in the diner’s kitchen, cooks deep fry food in a homemade “Ronnie sauce.” Six or seven locals have gathered around the one-room diner’s largest round table, and they are trying, a bit chaotically, to express to me the excitement in town when the Gipper died in ’04.

“People don’t come in for other things. They come to see the birthplace. We don’t have a lot of other things for the people to come to.”

They hadn’t planned to have lunch together or anything, but in this tiny Midwestern village just 50 miles or so past the Iowa border, they all know each other, and their children know each other, and their grandchildren probably know each other, and so on down the line. “When you live in a small town,” one woman concludes, “everyone knows what’s goin’ on!”

It’s been seven years now since the fortieth president’s death, but it may as well have been yesterday. On June 11 of that year, a plane carried Reagan’s body to his final resting place in Simi Valley, CA. At 3:08 PM, Tampico residents scurried out of their homes and into the streets, their eyes pointed skyward. That was when the aircraft passed over Tampico. It tipped its wing in a final salute. Today, older residents still go wide-eyed with remembrance. “That was exciting for me, because I’m an old lady and it was history for me and I never liked history,” one woman recalls. “They were sayin’, ‘Look at all the corn below,’ and we were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, there goes Ronald Reagan’s body, isn’t that exciting?'”

That anecdote, somehow, seems deeply indicative of the deep-rooted pride with which residents of this tiny town mark their connection to one of the influential leaders of the twentieth century.

But the old man across the table doesn’t miss a beat. “Well,” he begins, “that was the first time Ronald Reagan’s body ever flew over Tampico.”

* * * *

Reagan’s famous boyhood home lies about twenty miles northeast of here, in Dixon, and his Presidential Library and Museum is way out in southern California—the president’s home state throughout most of his adult life, where he is buried today. But Tampico is the birthplace, a forgotten town of under 800 surrounded by the Illinois cornfield abyss, and don’t you forget it. All too many believe he was born in Dixon, the locals bemoan. One resident has even composed a song correcting the misconception. The chorus is a real hoot:

He was born right here in
Born right here in
It’s time for the whole wide world to know
He was born right here in

Three popular presidents are routinely associated with Illinois (Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and today, Barack Obama), but only Reagan could rightfully claim to have been born in the state. “I think growing up in a small town is a good foundation for anyone who decides to enter politics,” Reagan commented later in life. “You get to know people as individuals, not as blocs or members of special-interest groups.” Amy McElhiney, a well-loved elderly resident who gave tours of the birthplace for over a decade, seems certainly to agree. “He certainly was a representative of small town America,” she tells me over the phone. “I don’t think they [Reagan’s family] ever felt at home in Chicago.”

Amy recalls her days at the birthplace warmly. “We met people from all over the world”—all without having to step outside the comfortable village of Tampico. One day, a bus arrived in Tampico carrying sixteen farmers from Bulgaria. “They really were fans of Ronald Reagan,” she recalls, “because they felt that he had saved them from domination from Russia.” I think of a letter I had seen on display at the birthplace. “You are the greatest president the world has ever seen,” Tom Liebel writes. “Your name alone will strike fear into Communists and freeloaders everywhere for centurys [sic] to come.”

Amy ran the birthplace for years with her husband, Lloyd. He was the lucky photographer who caught the image of the famous Reagan Rainbow in 1980. When he passed away from cancer in 2005, she asked that “donations to the village be made in lieu of memorials for a statue of Reagan” to be built someday in Reagan Park across from the birthplace. The effort to erect a Reagan statue continues today.

For now, this crazy mural will have to do.

The Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, I’ve mentioned, lies 2,000 west of here, in Simi Valley. I made it there this weekend (I’m drafting this from my Simi Valley hotel room), and I’ll be the first to confirm: it’s a phenomenal site with a phenomenally snooty staff. It’s the largest federally funded presidential library in the country—a state of the art museum in a breathtaking mountaintop setting, with exhibits ranging from a full-scale replica of the Oval Office to a  90,000-square-foot hangar containing the 707 plane used as Reagan’s Air Force One. Don’t forget the large chunk of the Berlin Wall straight-chillin’ on the library grounds. Reagan’s grave site falls just a few hundred feet away. It’s what he wanted, I guess.

It reflects the magnificence of the fortieth president’s legacy. It reflects nothing of his roots.

The Tampico birthplace offers a reasonably hilarious contrast. By which I mean, really, it’s the direct opposite. No steep entry fee, no glamorous visitor center, no sleek gift shop or mountaintop setting. Just a small, restored apartment building in which the Reagans once lived, deep in the heart of flat, rural Illinois. Downstairs you’ll find a goofy, homespun gift shop, lurking in the shadows of the First National Bank; miss the handpainted red-white-and-blue OPEN sign and you’ll miss the whole site.

Two sweet old ladies comprise the staff. Their uniforms: homemade t-shirts proclaiming “Reagan’s Rainbow” in Tampico, IL. They distribute complimentary jelly bellies to all who enter; when they realize I am doing a school project, they dart off to get me an envelope with ten free Reagan’s Birthplace postcards and a folded paper adorned with Reagan’s life facts: height (6 ft 1), weight (190 lbs), favorite bible verse (John 3:16), cologne (Royal Briar), and so on. Also, a love poem by Reagan’s mother. The Ronald Reagan Coloring Book costs me $0.50.

I say gift shop, but I really mean living-room nostalgia-shop-turned-shrine: a tornado of Reagan-related photos, memorabilia, posters, gift items, and bizarre items from the nostalgia-void lies scattered around the room. Bobble heads, portraits, bits of presidential stationary, letters from fans, a 1992 photo album of Reagan’s last visit to Tampico, what looks like a homemade “I passed fourth grade” certificate proclaiming Ronald Reagan the “Greatest American.” It’s yellowing around the edges, but so is everything here.

Most of it isn’t for sale.

This is the Reagan Birthplace. It’s no state of the art museum, but deep in the heart of rural Illinois, it’s a wholesome dose of Americana.

* * * *

Here’s my rendez-vous with Tampico locals at the Dutch Diner.

And more photos from the trip to Tampico:


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