A Complicated Man: Ronald Reagan’s Father

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This Father’s Day, you may hear a tribute to some heroic dad who stopped a house from burning down, or stormed the beaches of Normandy. I doubt you’ll hear about a dad I’ve studied: Jack Reagan, father of President Ronald Reagan. Jack’s story is more complicated, and not uncommon.

An Irish Catholic born in Illinois, Jack Reagan was a shoe salesman, and not a very good one. Before long, drinking—a lot of drinking—was helping him to cope.

Young Ronald Reagan with his father

Young Ronald Reagan never forgot one episode. It was a brisk February evening. Returning home from a basketball game at the YMCA, 11-year-old Reagan expected to arrive to an empty house. Instead, he was stunned by the sight of his father sprawled out in the snow on the front porch. “He was drunk,” his son remembered. “Dead to the world … crucified.”

Young Reagan stood over his father for a minute or two, wanting to ignore the image. Instead, he grabbed a fistful of overcoat and heaved Jack to the bedroom, away from the weather’s harm and neighbors’ attention. Reagan felt no resentment, just grief. This was the man, after all, who had always carried him.

Yes, that’s a sad story, but Ronald Reagan’s dad had his positives. He instilled in Reagan a work ethic and even communication skills that would serve him from radio, to film, to the presidency of the United States. His father taught him that success comes from within, not a handout. Reagan saw in his dad an ability to roll with the punches, a trait crucial to Reagan’s thick political skin. He also learned from his father a hatred of racial and religious discrimination. Jack didn’t just tell his son that racism was bad; he shared indelible accounts that Reagan internalized and retold throughout his life.

Jack Reagan had his limitations. In fact, it was really the Reagans together, both Jack and his wife, Nelle, who serve as an excellent example of how it takes two—a mom and a dad, each bringing separate strengths to the table—to best raise a child. Maybe that’s the worthwhile lesson to remember on Father’s Day, and any day.

For Catholic Exchange dot com and Ave Maria Radio, I’m Paul Kengor.


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Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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