Originally set aside in 1885 to remember and honor the life of George Washington, “Presidents’ Day” has now morphed in scope to commemorate all those who have served as our nation’s chief executive.

Presidents loom large in our minds and memories, especially the ones of our childhood. Born in 1972, I have no recollection of Richard Nixon and Watergate. Gerald Ford is hazy in my mind, though my first solid memory was the Bicentennial celebration and the parade of tall ships in New York Harbor on July 4. President Ford would serve seven more months.

As a young kid, President Carter seemed nice to me, but I still wasn’t paying much attention to politics in the first or second grade. By 1980 and the third grade, though, our school was holding a mock presidential election. Eighth grade students portrayed the major candidates, campaigning classroom to classroom. We voted on Election Day, and then jammed into the gymnasium later that afternoon, where they announced Ronald Reagan had won in a landslide in our mock election. Patriotic music along with red, white and blue balloons filled the air.

We watched in our classroom the real Ronald Reagan take the office on January 20, 1981. Mrs. Campbell rolled in a black and white television on a cart, something that only happened on very rare occasions.

Never in my wildest imagination could I have foreseen standing beside Ronald Reagan seventeen years later in his Century City office in Southern California, telling him the story – and hearing him chuckle and nod as I shared the childhood memory. “Oh my,” he said. “Oh my.”

It’s been nearly twenty years since our 40th president passed away, finally succumbing to a nearly ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s. That I even had the opportunity to meet Reagan seven years prior to his death was a remarkable gift, but also a vivid illustration of a great life lesson.

As a graduate student, I received a letter in the mail one day from my mother. She was a prolific letter writer, and made a habit of clipping news articles she’d think people would enjoy and then passing them along. On this day, the envelope was stuffed with a New York Times story that indicated Ronald Reagan, despite his advancing disease, was still entertaining guests, including ordinary Americans, in his California office.

“You should go see him,” my mother wrote.

Looking back, it was such a mom thing to say. Joan Batura was a fiercely curious person who could talk to anyone anywhere about almost anything. She also lived by an adventurous motto: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

I’m glad I took my mother’s advice. I wrote President Reagan a letter, asking if I might come, shake his hand and tell him how much I admired and loved him. Within two weeks I received a call from his office. When would I like to come see him? We set a date a few weeks before Christmas of 1997.

It was raining when I arrived at the fortieth president’s office, and I was early. Mr. Reagan occupied the 34th floor of the Fox Plaza. He had actually taken lease of the nearly 14,000-foot space following its use as part of the set of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard movie. In fact, when Reagan’s staff first toured the future office, there were bullet holes in the walls and broken glass on the ground.

Waiting for my appointed time, I wandered about the lobby. I took a long escalator down to a parking garage, and then turned around and went back up. Halfway up, I looked over my shoulder and spied Reagan behind me, sandwiched between two agents. He was wearing large eyeglasses carrying a briefcase. He nodded, smiled, and then headed for the elevator.

In time, I made it up to his office, and was warmly greeted by a receptionist. As I sat outside his office, in a small staging area, one of his assistants told me a story.

A week or so earlier, the president had been awarded an honorary doctorate by a well-known university. “They were sitting where you are sitting,” she told me. “They had brought an academic robe with the hood, and said they wanted the president to wear it as part of the presentation.”

Reagan’s aide went on to tell me they said “No,” that would be too much for him. But the former president overheard the exchange, came out of his office and broke into the conversation.

“Yes, yes, I’d like to wear it!” he enthusiastically told them. And so that’s what he did.

“It goes back to his Hollywood days,” she told me. “He likes to play the part. So, when you speak with him, let him lead. He has good days and bad days.”

Thankfully, the president was doing well on this December Friday. We exchanged pleasantries and then Reagan told a humorous story about a recent interaction with a young boy in the park across the street. Throwing back his shoulders, he laughed heartily and – as if I were an old friend – slapped me on the back.

It was a surreal 15 minutes. Here I was, an ordinary 25-year-old American citizen, talking with a man who helped change the world, the same president I watched inaugurated while sitting in my third-grade classroom.

George Washington was once called “The Indispensable Man” for his role in leading our fledgling country at its founding. When Reagan quoted George Washington, he’d often joke that he hadn’t actually heard him say it in person, self-deprecating humor alluding to his advancing years.

In reality, no man or woman is indispensable. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t invaluable and used by the Lord to accomplish His plans and purposes. Over the years, we’ve been blessed by tremendous leaders and somehow managed to survive inept, incompetent and inferior other ones. In fact, the Lord has used those individuals, too.

When Washington died on December 14, 1799, the nation’s first leader was famously eulogized in a 3,500-word funeral oration by General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee. Lees’ remarks are timeless and can serve as a blueprint for anyone serving in public or private office. Many of the characteristics highlighted could also be said of Ronald Reagan.

George Washington, he said, was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life: Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.

“To his equals he was condescending; to his inferiors kind; and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender: Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”

America is in desperate need of these types of leaders today, and as Christians, we should be praying for His mercy and favor and that such blessings would come our way again.


Image credit: Paul Batura