MONMOUTH, Ill. — As campus historian for Monmouth College, I am occasionally asked how many U.S. presidents have visited Monmouth. No sitting president has ever visited Monmouth, but as many as nine former or future presidents have made appearances in town (it’s not yet clear whether or not James Buchanan joined the ranks of Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, McKinley, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Obama).
What is certain is that the last four of those men all visited Monmouth College — Ford in 1964, Reagan in 1976, Bush in 2000 and Obama in 2004. While I was present only for the Bush and Obama visits, many Monmouth residents still remember the Reagan visit, when an estimated crowd of 2,100 packed the old college gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 23, 1976.
Because of Reagan’s Monmouth ties (he attended second and third grade here when his father was a shoe salesman at Colwell’s Department Store), I decided to look into the circumstances and details of his visit during the bicentennial year.
It’s interesting to realize that Reagan was raised as a Democrat and worked to elect Democratic candidates during his years as president of the Screen Actors Guild during the 1940s and ’50s. Over time, however, he became increasingly conservative and his entry into politics came in 1964, when he delivered a nationally televised speech in support of Sen. Barry Goldwater for president. Titled “A Time for Choosing,” that memorable speech catapulted Reagan into the national political spotlight and earned him the nickname “The Great Communicator.”
Although Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election in a landslide, California Republicans were so enamored by Reagan’s speech that they persuaded him to run for governor in 1966 and he defeated popular Democratic governor Pat Brown by almost a million votes.
In 1968, Reagan ran for president and gained more popular votes in the primaries than Nixon, but when he tried to partner with Nelson Rockefeller to defeat Nixon at the Republican convention, the plan backfired, and Nixon was elected. Reagan turned his sights back to California and was reelected governor in 1970, but his ambition for the White House had been whetted and could not be denied. He declined to run for reelection in 1974 and initiated a syndicated conservative newspaper column and radio commentary.
On Nov. 20, 1975, Reagan announced his intention to again run for president — this time against Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency without an election, following the resignation of Nixon. Earlier that fall, Monmouth College president DeBow Freed had issued an invitation to all presidential and Illinois gubernatorial candidates to speak at Monmouth College. By early 1976, the invitation was accepted by the Reagan campaign.
Although it was the day before the New Hampshire primary, Reagan flew into Quincy on the morning of Feb. 23 for a three-day visit to his native state. His philosophy was that New Hampshire primary voters would have already made up their minds, and for that reason he would also not travel back to Illinois for its primary on March 17.
After breakfast at the Casino Starlight Terrace in Quincy, his motorcade traveled to Macomb for a noon rally at Western Illinois University. At 2 p.m., the entourage arrived at Monmouth College, where Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were warmly greeted by Republican dignitaries. Mayor George Bersted presented Reagan with a key to the city, which he had not visited for 57 years.
Reagan opened his remarks by attacking the “fourth branch of government” — the federal bureaucracy, claiming it “invades virtually every aspect of our private lives.” Claiming the government takes 44 cents out of every dollar an American earns, he urged the audience to support limits on Congressional spending.
Much of the rest of his talk presaged the policies he would pursue when he eventually reached the White House. He called wage and price controls an “unnatural interference in the marketplace” and was critical of President Ford’s overtures toward détente with the Soviet Union, warning it would give them superiority in the arms race.
Speaking to a largely agricultural audience, Reagan also criticized embargos placed on grain sales to the Soviet Union and was supportive of the U.S. opening diplomatic relations that enabled trade with China.
While on stage, he called out the names of two childhood friends from Monmouth and grinned when he discovered both were in attendance.
Answering questions from reporters, Reagan affirmed his support of key conservative principles, including the freedom to carry firearms, the death penalty and right to life. He ended his remarks by urging the audience to look up the figures he used, learn about both sides of the issues and make up their own minds about the candidates.
Much of Reagan’s Illinois tour was centered around nostalgic visits to sites from his youth, so after exiting the gym, the candidate headed four blocks south to the white frame house at 218 South 7th St., where he had lived from 1918–19. Standing on the sidewalk, though, he couldn’t remember which of the bedrooms he had occupied.
Reagan told reporters the tale of being a new kid at nearby Central School and being chased all they way home by six or eight boys, running onto the front porch and his mother coming out to scold his tormentors. Reagan said it was the only time in his life that he’d been truly terrified — scared to death.
Presently, the current occupant of the house, Mrs. Frances Ray, stepped onto the porch. “My daughter just left,” she said. “She said she wanted to see Ronald Reagan before he left town.” Just then, the 10-year-old daughter, Kathy, appeared — exclaiming, “My dad said you wouldn’t come, but you did!”
Reagan and his wife walked to the backyard, reminiscing about his childhood there. One of his most vivid memories was of his mother having nearly succumbed to the Spanish influenza in 1918, as had several Monmouth residents. “To walk to school, it seems like half the houses on the street would have a black wreath on the door,” he said.
The next day — Tuesday — Reagan visited his birthplace in Tampico, then stopped in Sterling and at his high school home in Dixon before flying to New Hampshire for a night of vote counting. He would return to Illinois for one more day of campaigning on Wednesday.
Throughout the primary campaign, Reagan put up a strong fight against Ford, winning most of the western and southern states, while Ford took most of the Midwest, New England and Florida. By the time of the Republican convention in Kansas City that August, neither candidate had achieved a majority of delegates, so both made early appearances at the convention hall to try to swing delegates to their side.
Reagan, who had already selected Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate, attempted a political gambit of proposing a change to the convention rules that would have required Ford to also name a running mate, thus potentially alienating some of his delegates before the presidential voting got underway. The rule change was voted down, however, and Ford prevailed with 117 more delegates than Reagan.
But when Ford magnanimously called Reagan to the podium and allowed him to give a concession speech, the Great Communicator so stirred the audience with his rhetoric that some delegates later stated they left the convention hall wondering if they had voted for the wrong candidate.
Once again, Reagan returned his attention to his syndicated radio commentary, biding his time until 1980, when he would at last secure the stunning presidential victory now famously known as the “Reagan Revolution.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.