Reagan spent some happy years in Iowa
This issue marks the second occasion that a President of the United States has graced the cover of Iowa History Journal. The first time came in March-April of 2009, when Herbert Hoover did us the honor.
Of our 44 presidents, only Hoover has a stronger Iowa connection than Ronald Reagan. Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874 and was orphaned by the age of ten. A year later, he was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois in 1911, spent much of his formative years in nearby Dixon, and came to Iowa as a young radio sports announcer in 1933. Not only did Reagan work at WHO Radio, honing the skills that would some day cause him to be called “The Great Communicator”, but he also spent time at Fort Des Moines, learning how to ride horses, which became one of the true passions of his life. Dutch, as he was known back then, greatly enjoyed his four years in Des Moines.
I had the great honor of meeting Ronald Reagan when he came back to Dixon on October 30, 1990. I was executive editor of the newspaper in Dixon and my wife, Bev, and I were among the 30 or so people invited to meet the former president.
Since this is the 100th anniversary of the date of his birth (February 6), we wanted to feature Ronald Reagan on our cover to showcase our feature article on WHO Radio. Starting on page 4, you will find the story written by Michael Swanger, which has some information about Reagan’s career at WHO. But I wanted to use this column to tell you more about the president’s years in Iowa.
Reagan got his first major job (after graduating from Eureka College) in February of 1933 when he was hired by station WOC in Davenport. In his autobiography, Ronald Reagan: An American Life, he admits he got off to a very rocky start and was actually fired. But at the last second, WOC’s sister station in Des Moines, WHO, brought him over to announce the Drake Relays.
“I spent four years at station WHO in Des Moines and they were among the most pleasant of my life,” he said in the book. “At twenty-two I’d achieved my dream: I was a sports announcer. If I had stopped there, I believe I would have been happy the rest of my life. I’d accomplished my goal and enjoyed every minute of it.”
Dutch’s older brother, Neill (nicknamed Moon), came to visit him one day and also became an announcer at WHO, beginning a long career in broadcasting and advertising. The two Reagan brothers became popular “men about town” in Des Moines. Dutch wound up spending a great deal of time at Fort Des Moines. He joined the Fourteenth Calvary Regiment based at the fort, and went into officer training.
“In Des Moines, I transformed some of my childhood fantasies into reality and discovered a lifelong love for horses and riding,” he wrote. “I just fell in love with riding and I began to dream of owning a ranch. As the years passed, there was no place on earth I’d rather be than in a saddle, on the back of a horse.”
Another big moment in his life came when he received his officer’s commission at Fort Des Moines on May 25, 1937.
With his dazzling good looks and midwestern charm, Reagan was a natural for Hollywood. While in Los Angeles on a vacation in the spring of 1938 and, with help from a transplanted Des Moines singer named Joy Hodges, he was given a brief screen test by Warner Brothers, one of the most powerful studios in the industry. To his amazement, the studio offered him a contract at $200 a week.
“After a lot of sad goodbyes to my friends in Des Moines, I packed everything I owned into a Nash convertible that I’d bought recently for $600 and headed for California,” he wrote in his autobiography
Nothing would ever be the same – for Dutch Reagan or for America. He was on his way to the very top, and Iowa had played a key role.
He was immediately cast in little film called “Love is On the Air”, and went on to appear in over 50 films, including such hits as “Knute Rockne: All-American” and “King’s Row”. He was voted president of the powerful Screen Actors Guild, served two terms as governor of California and then became the nation’s 40th president and leader of the Free World from 1981 to 1989.
His legacy lives on across the nation, and in Iowa. On a regular basis, WHO Radio proudly plays tapes of Reagan talking about his days at the station and his experiences in Iowa. A terrific photo of him during his WHO days greets visitors in the lobby of the radio station’s offices at 1801 Grand Avenue, the very same photo used on the cover of this magazine.
Fort Des Moines proudly displays many mementoes from Dutch’s time there as a young reserve cavalry officer. For the past several years on February 6, the fort has hosted a birthday party for Dutch.
In our own little way, Iowa History Journal takes this opportunity to salute Ronald Reagan on the 100th anniversary of his birthday and remind our readers that he spent, by his own admission, some of the happiest years of his life in our state.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)