Though he gained prominence as an actor in Hollywood and later as President of the United States, the people of Dixon, Illinois, remember Ronald Reagan as a hometown hero who saved the lives of 77 people while working as a lifeguard. The town is honoring Reagan’s 100th birthday this year, with a year-long celebration. The 40th President's hometown was never very far from his heart.
Ninety-five-year-old Gertrude Childers almost didn’t make it past the age of 15. She was swimming in the Rock River near Dixon, Illinois, one warm summer day in 1931, when she failed to notice another swimmer barreling down the water slide. ".. and our timing was so perfect as he came down, I pushed out, and this man landed right on my neck and shoulders and of course it knocked me out," Childers said.
She would have drowned right then and there, if it had not been for the lifeguard everyone called "Dutch," who pulled her limp body out of the water. "Everybody knew Dutch. He was just always there," Childers said.
Gertrude was number 70 on the list of 77 people the locals say "Dutch" saved in his career as a lifeguard.
When "Dutch", known to the rest of the world as Ronald Reagan, went on to star in movies, and to lead the state of California and later the United States, his next-door neighbor in Dixon, Helen Lawton, had a hard time calling him "Governor," or "Mr. President." "Well he was just "Dutch" Reagan to us!," she said.
Dixon, Illinois, population 16,000, is still in many ways the small Midwestern community where Ronald Reagan grew up. Only now, the town is known throughout the world.
"He’s been a good public relations arm for the city of Dixon," said Jim Burke, Dixon’s mayor, though on the opposite side of politics from Ronald Reagan. "I’m a Democrat... but a big Reagan supporter," he said.
Reagan’s popularity has been of great benefit to Dixon, attracting tourists from around the world who want to explore the place that molded the character of a man who would become President. "He always kept his roots, and I think that is how he is celebrated here, as a guy who went on to great success but never lost his humility," Burke said.
That humility is on display in the modest home where Reagan spent much of his childhood. Completely renovated, it is an historic landmark, and the most popular tourist attraction in the region.
"We have ranged from 15,000 to about 30,000 in the years that it has been open. When Mr. Reagan passed away that year, it was bumped up considerably," said Ann Lewis, the chairwoman of the Dixon Reagan Centennial Commission. She is expecting a record number of visitors to the city this year as Dixon, and the state of Illinois, celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.
That celebration began with much fanfare.
At the historic Dixon Theater, the place where Ronald Reagan watched the films that would inspire his career as an actor, musicians from around the country gathered to honor "Dutch."
"It’s more of an anthem to his optimism - his moral character… all those things he really believed in," said music professor David Holsinger. He says it was only fitting that Dixon hosted the debut of his original composition, titled "Reagan of Illinois."
"It is something special when you walk into a place like this. 'Cause you can sense it in not only the people and the buildings and all the landmarks around, but you can… it’s kind of in the air," Holsinger said.
While the attention in Dixon now focuses larger-than-life statues and memorials to the nation's 40th President, organizers say the Reagan Centennial is meant to honor the essence of the man. A man who many in Dixon remember less as an icon of the big screen, or the President of the United States, endeavoring to end the Cold War, than as a fair-haired lifeguard who saved the lives of Gertrude Childers and 76 others - back when everyone called him "Dutch."