Reagan Museum more than just history

Tom Batters
A bust of Ronald Reagan at Eureka College.

It is an old black and white photograph with creased edges and faint streaks through the middle.

One of the people in the photograph stands out right away. It is, of course, former president Ronald Reagan, who stands taller and looks more athletic than the rest of his teammates.

It would be easy for a visitor to simply pass by the photo without giving it much thought.

But this photograph, like the thousands of other pictures and artifacts at the Ronald Reagan Museum on the campus of Eureka College has a poignant story attached to it.

Dr. Brian Sajko, curator of the museum, is in charge of presenting those stories to the thousands of visitors who walk through the museum each year.

He stops at the photograph of the 1930 Eureka College football team,  points to an African American man in the lower right corner, and the picture seemingly comes to life as he tells the story behind it.

“That’s Frankie Burghardt. He was Reagan’s best friend when they played football together....”

In 1930, the football team was on its way to play Elmhurst College, when the players and coaches stopped at a tavern near Tampico (Reagan’s hometown).

The tavern owner said, “You have black players (Eureka College had four African American players in 1930). You can’t stay here.”

Reagan took all four black players to his house. His mother made them a full  dinner and they stayed the night.

Fifty years later, when Reagan was president, supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall publicly criticized Reagan and called his policies “racist.”

Reagan met with Marshall behind closed doors. Marshall came out of the meeting and said something like: I may not agree with some of his policies, but I am convinced that Ronald Reagan is not a racist.

“You would have to think that Reagan told Marshall about Frankie Burghardt,” Sajko said. “How could anyone think Reagan was a racist once they knew about his roots, and about Frankie Burghardt?”

The museum is a haven for Reagan enthusiasts or history buffs, but it is also a visual, almost theatrical, telling of the story of how a poor boy from Tampico became a movie star, governor of California and president of the United States, and how he remained true to those small-town values throughout his days in Hollywood and Washington.

The museum is open to the public (hours vary throughout the year and are listed at eureka.edu).

Visitors can walk through it on their own, but a guided tour is recommended, since there are so many meaningful stories associated with the items on display.

Take the little brown bowl, for example. Unguided, a visitor might walk by it or not even see it, but it is a vital part of the collection.

During the Civil War (Eureka College was founded in 1855), there was a large elm tree on campus that was called “the recruiting tree.”

Abolitionists climbed the tree and hung the union Jack flag from the top branches.

Years later, when the tree was dying, it was cut down and several bowls were carved from its wood. One of the bowls was presented to Reagan.

“He kept it on his desk at the White House to remind him of who real America was and who he was elected to serve,” Sajko said.

How did Sajko know this? He heard it from Reagan himself.

Sajko and Reagan corresponded regularly. If Sajko was not sure about an item in the collection, he wrote to Reagan to ask him about it. Reagan always replied promptly, and sometimes with a bit of humor.

When Sajko wrote to tell Reagan he found his college diploma (it fell out of a box that was tucked in the records department basement), Reagan wrote back and said, “You might want to send that back to me. I might need it for future employment.”

There are more than 10,000 items in the Eureka College Reagan collection. About 3,000 items are on display in the museum at one time.

About 90-percent of the items came directly from Reagan.

“This college meant so much to him,” Sajko said. “It was like family to him. He felt that a lot of his special belongings should be donated back to the college.”

The collection covers Reagan’s humble beginnings to his rise to Hollywood fame to his career as one of the world’s most influential leaders. There are valuable, dignified items such as the Medallion of Valor from the state of Israel, presented to him by former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eben.

And there are other items that illustrate Reagan’s humble view of himself.

He once received a letter from a little girl who wrote, “please win the election (for president). My dad says it costs a lot of money, so here is some money...” Twenty one cents were in the envelope.

Reagan saved the letter — and the 21 cents. He wrote back to the girl and sent the letter and the change to Eureka College.

There are Reagan dolls, cutout paper figures, and even a certificate from the Sons of Burlington declaring Reagan as an “honorary S.O.B.”

“He had a great sense of humor,” Sajko said. “He would just love to see these things on display.”

The items are displayed chronologically, starting with the first glass wall case, which contains Reagan’s college yearbook.

Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932, but the 1931 yearbook is the one on display. The 1932 yearbook was printed too late, so it did not have the class of 1932 in it.

The yearbook is opened to the page that contains Reagan’s picture.

Three spots below is the picture of Willie Sue Smith, an African-American woman from Houston, who is the last surviving member of Reagan’s class. She turned 100-years- old this year.

Other display cases chronicle the other stages in Reagan’s life. One stop on the tour is the Hollywood wall, which covers Reagan’s days as a blockbuster movie star in the forties and fifties.

A large poster and two rare lobby cards of the film “Hellcats of the Navy” take up part of the wall. That was the only movie in which Reagan and his wife, Nancy, appeared together.

A video screen plays Reagan movies and theater seats allow visitors to sit and watch.

Another wall contains four large black and white pictures taken by former White House photographer Pete Souza. These photos show the intense, contemplative side of Reagan.

“When Gorbachev was here, he stopped to look at these pictures for a long time,” Sajko said. “This was the side of Reagan he knew so well.”

Sajko, who has a theater background, said he tried to present all the items in such a way that they told Reagan’s compelling story.

“I didn’t want it to be just a collection of historical documents,” he said. “I wanted people to see his story unfold for themselves.”

Quotes on the wall (printed in maroon and gold) add to the dramatic flair.

There is no attribution or dates listed with the quotes.

“If his name or the date is on there, then it seems too much like a historical document,” Sajko said. “I wanted to make it seem like he was speaking to you right here and right now. It makes the quote more powerful.”

Just a short walk outside will lead visitors to the Ronald Reagan Peace Garden.

To commemorate Reagan’s commitment to world peace and the important 1982 speech he presented at Eureka, the college dedicated the Ronald Reagan Peace Garden in May of 2000.

The Peace Garden was a gift to the college from Mr. and Mrs. David J. Vaughan of Peoria Heights.

Dedicated on the 18th anniversary of what is known as “The Eureka Speech,” highlights of the Peace Garden include a bust of Mr. Reagan, sculpted by nationally-recognized artist, Lonnie Stewart.

For more information on the Reagan Museum or Peace Garden, visit eureka.edu or call 467-6407.