Ronald Reagan came from humble beginnings. He was born on February 6, 1911 in the town of Tampico, Illinois. His parents were Jack and Nelle. Jack Reagan was an unsuccessful salesman who was also known as an alcoholic. His mother, Nelle Wilson Reagon was a devout farmwoman who raised Ronald and his older brother, Neil, in the Disciples of Christ Church despite their father's Catholicism. The family moved frequently, sometimes in response to new job opportunities, sometimes after Jack had been fired because of his drinking. In 1920 they settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Jack became the proprietor and part owner of a shoe store (Reeves 2).
Ronald Reagan was an outgoing, optimistic, popular, and apparently happy youth despite the problems of his family. He was interested in sports from an early age and particularly liked football and swimming. Ronald was also nearsighted, which was later diagnosed, made baseball difficult for him. He was a hardworking and modestly successful student, with a talent for memorization (Miller Center). He was active early in school dramatics. As a teenager, he worked during summers as a lifeguard at the swimming area of the local river and put aside much of what he earned for his education (Reeves 6).
Reagan's youth was in many ways oddly similar to that of other provincial Americans who rose to political prominence: a boyhood in a small town, a family struggling precariously on the edges of the middle class, education in small, undistinguished schools. Huey P. Long, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and many others had grown up in comparable circumstances. But unlike most other small-town boys who rose to political greatness, Reagan showed little early interest in politics (Brinkley). Jack Reagan, like most American Catholics of his era, was a staunch Democrat and Ronald inherited his father's unreflective enthusiasm for the party even though, throughout the 1920s, it enjoyed little national success. He became a fervent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, an attachment that grew stronger when the New Deal agencies began providing jobs to unemployed men (among them his father) in depression-ravaged central Illinois (Miller Center). But he never became actively involved in Democratic politics in the state. He found himself drawn occasionally into campus politics at Eureka and in his senior year won election as class president. But when he graduated in 1932, with a B.A. in economics and sociology, politics and public life remained far from his thoughts. He was, he later wrote, drawn to "some form of show business," an interest born in part of his experiences in the Eureka drama society (Brinkley).
Following graduation, at a time when a quarter of Americans were unemployed, Reagan found work as a radio announcer, first in Davenport, Iowa, then later Des Moines. Reagan struggled at first but in time became one of the best-known sports announcers in the Midwest (Reeves 9). He also became a popular speaker before Des Moines service groups and enlisted as a reserve officer in the U.S. Cavalry so he could ride horses regularly. But he dreamed of bigger things. In 1937, Reagan went to California with the Chicago Cubs baseball team on spring training and arranged through a friend for a screen test at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers offered Reagan a contract for $200 a week that launched his film career (Brinkley).
His growing success also won him a series of deferments from military service (at the request of Warner Brothers) once the United States entered World War II, and then after he was called up and commissioned an officer in the cavalry, an assignment with an army film unit. He spent the war in California making army training movies at a military base in Los Angeles, with time off to make feature films at Warner Brothers (among them the successful 1943 tribute to the military, This Is the Army ) (D’Souza 10). Much of the time, he lived at home with...