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Five Interesting Facts About Ronald Reagan That You Probably Didn't Know
They called him the Gipper: Ronald Reagan, the man who was the king only of B-movies until he went on to become the Governor of California and later the 40th President of the United States. Hated by many, but beloved by many more, Reagan was the one who, in the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, won the Cold War without firing a shot.
We know about Bedtime for Bonzo, about his penchant for jelly beans, and about his plea in Berlin to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Tear down this wall." Here are some fun and interesting facts about Ronald Reagan that you probably didn't know.
1. He Saved Seventy-Seven People from Drowning
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, but grew up in the neighboring town of Dixon.
Beginning in 1927, he spent his summers working as a lifeguard in Lowell Park along Dixon's Rock River. It was tough work. The people in charge were the park's concessionaires, a couple by the name of Edward and Ruth Graybill, who had to have a lifeguard on the premises in order to keep their license and to keep the insurance rates low. In the mornings Reagan would come to their home and get ice, which he'd put into coolers for the day. Because of floodlighting, the park was usually open until at least 10 p.m., which meant Reagan would be at the job twelve hours a day. He worked seven days a week.
Reagan worked alone, keeping an eye on sometimes as many as a thousand bathers, and over the course of the next six summers he swam out and rescued 77 people who were drowning without losing a single one. He knew the number precisely because he made a notch on a log each time he made a rescue, and many of his rescues were written up in the local paper. Reagan subsequently considered making these rescues as one of his life's greatest achievements, and rightly so.
2. He Once Foiled a Robbery
In the 1930's Reagan was living in Des Moines, Iowa, where he was working as an announcer at radio station WHO. One summer night he heard a commotion outside the window of his second-story apartment. He looked down and saw a man assaulting a nursing student by the name of Melba Loehmann. The man had already taken her purse and was starting to go after her suitcase.
Thinking quickly, Reagan yelled out the window, "Leave her alone or I'll shoot you in the shoulders." Accounts differ as to whether Reagan even had a gun at the time. If he did, it almost assuredly wasn't loaded. Nevertheless, his act of bravado was enough to scare the attacker off without any haul. Reagan then came downstairs and, in his pajamas, escorted Ms. Loehmann to the hospital where she worked.
Talk about a win for the Gipper.
3. He Got Married in a Cemetery
Reagan met Jane Wyman in 1938 while the two of them were working on the Warner Brothers film Brother Rat. Reagan pursues Wyman romantically in the movie. By 1939 they were dating for real. If Reagan was reluctant at first, it may have been because he was still getting over Margaret Cleaver, his hometown sweetheart who had broken off their relationship by mailing back her engagement ring. Wyman had recently been in a relationship as well with Myron Futterman, whom she divorced the same year she met Reagan.
When Reagan and Wyman got engaged, it was Wyman's friend gossip columnist Louella Parsons who broke the news. The Hollywood press had a field day, proclaiming Reagan and Wyman to be the perfect couple. One magazine even offered to pay for a honeymoon in Hawaii in exchange for the exclusive right to photograph them.
They got married on January 26, 1940, in the Wee Kirk o' the Heather, one of three wedding chapels located at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Then, as now, the cemetery was a popular wedding venue because of its serene atmosphere, beautiful architecture, and well-manicured lawns.
Unfortunately, within a decade the marriage was as dead as what was under those manicured lawns. The ideal couple of the movie magazines became "Those Battling Reagans," and by 1948 they had called it quits. Afterward, each of them kept mostly mum about their relationship for more than half a century. During Reagan's presidency, Wyman experienced a career revival of sorts starring as Angela Channing in the CBS television drama Falcon Crest which ran from 1981 to 1990. Upon Reagan's death in 2004, she finally broke her silence, releasing a statement calling him "a great president and a great, kind and gentle man." She also came to his funeral even though at 90 years old she was not in the best of health. Wyman herself died three years later and is buried at Forest Lawn's Cathedral City park near Palm Springs. Reagan is buried on the grounds of the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
4. He Played Vegas
Ronald Reagan as a comedian? In Las Vegas? It happened -- although very briefly.
In February, 1954, a little over a year after their daughter Patti was born, Ron and his second wife, fellow actress Nancy Davis, needed money, so Reagan accepted a two-week gig at the Last Frontier hotel in Las Vegas to be part of an act called the Continentals, in a sketch that exaggerated his supposed lack of talent. Reagan got good reviews and some offers to appear in other clubs around the country. But especially as parents of an infant, the Reagans decided that just wasn't their thing. Fortunately, a much better gig came along soon afterward, when Reagan became host of General Electric Theater at a salary of $125,000 a year.
Here's the Rest of Him
5. He Held His Own Against Union Thugs
Reagan is, of course, the only President so far who has been president of a labor union. Yes, some say, but it was the Screen Actors' Guild -- the implication being that SAG wasn't a real union.
Actually, in the late 40's and 50's, when Reagan was active in the SAG, unions had considerably more power than they do today -- and they were no place for choirboys. Not many years earlier, the Feds had dismantled the Chicago Mob, thanks to the testimony of Willie Bioff, an enforcer for IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who for more than a decade had been engaged in a lucrative shakedown operation of the Hollywood Studios, threatening work stoppages if the studios didn't pay up. (Bioff was rewarded for his testimony by a bomb planted in his pickup truck in 1955.) Roy Brewer had recently been brought in to clean up the Alliance. The Communist Party of the USA had become interested in Hollywood, too, being one of the influences behind the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a conglomeration of film-related craft unions which was formed in 1941.
By 1946, IATSE and the CSU were engaged in an all-out turf war. The CSU had called a strike on behalf of the set decorators, allegedly to push for better wages. What the CSU really wanted to do was pry set decorators loose from IATSE by claiming to represent all of them. People were asking the SAG what to do. Reagan, who was then just an SAG board member (he wouldn't become president of the organization until 1947), suggested calling for binding arbitration.
Reagan soon discovered he'd kicked open a hornet's nest. While working on the film Stallion Road, he got a call at a filling station from a man who threatened to destroy his face and thus his livelihood. (Reagan found out later that the plan was to throw acid.) Reagan didn't find out who the man was, but he took the threat seriously enough to report it to the Burbank police, who equipped him with a gun which he carried for the next seven months. The police also put a watch on his house. On another occasion Reagan came to work one morning and discovered that a bus scheduled to take actors to a location shoot had been fire-bombed.
Fortunately, nothing happened to him. When the strike fell apart shortly afterward, it marked the end of the CSU. But Reagan's experience in the SAG became the first stepping stone in what was to become a remarkable political career.