University community mourns former president’s death

Amy Horst

University alumnus Max Kampelman met former President Ronald Reagan in 1978 at a fund-raising dinner.

The two hit it off when they realized they were both friends of former U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn. Kampelman, a self-described liberal Democrat, went on to serve as chief U.S. arms-reduction negotiator during Reagan’s administration.

“He was special in that he knew exactly what he wanted, there was no ambiguity about it,” Kampelman said of Reagan.

“He knew exactly where he wanted to go and where he wanted the country to go.”

Last weekend, University alumni, students and faculty mourned the death and remembered the life of Reagan, who died at 93 on Saturday.

Reagan, who was the nation’s 40th president, had fought a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Wife Nancy Reagan and children Ron and Patti Davis were at the couple’s Los Angeles home when Reagan died at 1 p.m. Saturday of pneumonia as a complication of Alzheimer’s, said Joanne Drake, who represents the family. Son Michael arrived a short time later, she said.

Dan Nelson, former chairman of the Campus Republicans, called Reagan the “first true conservative.”

The country’s attitude changed while Reagan was in office, Nelson said.

“The whole mood of the century was not one of hope and not looking into the future,” he said. “In four years things were looking up, inflation was down and the economy started to skyrocket.”

Five years after leaving office, Reagan told the world in November 1994 that he had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He said he had begun “the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”

Although fiercely protective of Reagan’s privacy, former first lady Nancy Reagan let people know his mental condition had deteriorated terribly. Last month, she said: “Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him.”

He lived longer than any U.S. president, spending his last decade in the shrouded seclusion wrought by his disease, tended by his wife, whom he called “Mommy,” and the few closest to him. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are the surviving ex-presidents.

Reagan began his life in a four-room apartment over the general store in Tampico, Ill. Before he was elected president, Reagan racked up an impressive resume working first as a radio sports announcer, then as an actor and a two-term governor of California.

At 69, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president when he was chosen on Nov. 4, 1980 by an unexpectedly large margin, over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Near-tragedy struck on his 70th day as president. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was leaving a Washington hotel after addressing labor leaders when a young drifter, John Hinckley Jr., fired six shots at him. A bullet lodged itself an inch from Reagan’s heart, but the president recovered.

Over two terms, from 1981 to 1989, Reagan retooled the Republican Party in his conservative image, fixed his eye on the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism and tripled the national debt to $3 trillion in his single-minded competition with the other superpower.

His famed “Star Wars” program drew the Soviets into a costly arms race they couldn’t afford. His 1987 declaration to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” – was the ultimate challenge of the Cold War.

On Sunday, Gorbachev hailed Reagan as a great president and said he was distraught by news of his death, the Interfax news agency reported.

“Reagan was a statesman who, despite all disagreements that existed between our countries at the time, displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better, stop the nuclear race, start scrapping nuclear weapons and arrange normal relations between our countries,” Gorbachev said.

In his second term, Reagan was dogged by revelations that he authorized secret arms sales to Iran while seeking Iranian aid to gain release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Some of the money was used to aid rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.

Despite the ensuing investigations, he left office in 1989 with the highest popularity rating of any retiring president in the history of modern-day public opinion polls. His populist brand of conservative politics still inspires the Republican Party.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy; three children, Michael, from his first marriage, and Patti Davis and Ron from his second. His oldest daughter, Maureen, from his first marriage, died in August 2001 at age 60 from cancer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.