Earlier this week, on Sunday March 6th, former first lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, passed away at age 94.
Born as Anne Frances Robbins in New York City on July 6, 1921, she quickly acquired the nickname “Nancy”, and was raised by her aunt and uncle in Maryland while her mother (an aspiring actress) would be off on long theatre runs.
Nancy’s father left while she was very young, but when her mother married a Chicago neurosurgeon in 1929, Nancy’s world was filled with wealth and privilege. She attended the Girl’s Latin School, then studied drama and earned a bachelors of arts degree at Smith College.
After college, Nancy began her acting career first on stage in the play Ramshackle Inn, and eventually landed a role in the musical Lute Song. A few years later Nancy traveled to Hollywood, where she was hired in various type-cast minor roles, before noticing her name was on the Hollywood blacklist of individuals suspected of being communist sympathizers. Unfortunately the listing was for an actress of the same name, and having no association with the organization, Nancy contacted the president of the Screen Actors Guild to see if he could help. That gentleman happened to be then-actor Ronald Reagan.
Ronald and Nancy’s relationship was once described by actor Charlton Heston as “probably the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency.” The two were married on March 4, 1952, and even though they were both famous figures, constantly in the public eye, their relationship thrived.
The public saw a couple intensely devoted to each other, as they were always holding hands, and could not bear to be apart. Ronald Reagan wrote countless letters to his wife, and in turn Nancy would leave cards and love notes around for him to discover. In 2000, Nancy published the book I love you Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.
Nancy Reagan served as First Lady to her husband during his terms as President of the United States from 1981 to 1989. While her husband was leading the free world, Nancy was also doing all she could to make a change. Her biggest movement was the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. She embraced the cause in 1982, and by 1988 more than 12,000 “Just Say No” Clubs were formed around the world, and the rate of cocaine use by high-school seniors dropped by 1/3. Upon leaving the White House, Mrs. Reagan establish the Nancy Reagan Foundation to continue her campaign against drug abuse, and many “Just Say No” Clubs are still active today.
Through all the successes, this strong-willed First Lady was also faced with many challenges. After the assassination attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, Nancy made it her concern to know all aspects of his itinerary and feared for his safety every day. Then later in 1987, her own health was in jeopardy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she underwent a mastectomy.
Upon leaving the White House, the Reagans relocated to California, and dedicated most of their time developing the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library which opened in 1991.
Their “golden years” of retirement were sadly cut short when the former President was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. Realizing the need for increased research for prevention, treatments, and ultimately a cure, they joined forces with the National Alzheimer’s Association by forming the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in 1995. The remaining decade of the president’s life were mainly spent at home, where Nancy rarely left his side.
Though reluctant to travel and leave her husband’s side, one occasion compelled her to return to Washington: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow. President George W. Bush said in recognition, “Nancy Reagan has devoted herself to her family and her country. As First Lady of California, she spoke out eloquently on behalf of POWs and American servicemen missing in action. As First Lady of the United States, she led an anti-drug campaign that helped reduce teenage drug abuse. Today we honor Nancy Reagan for her eloquent example of loyalty and courage and abiding love.”
Following Ronald Reagan’s death in 2004, Nancy became a public advocate for stem-cell research, even though put her in opposition to then-President George W. Bush’s position on the issue. The more she learned, the more she became convinced that stem cells were the most promising treatment not only for Alzheimer’s disease, but also for juvenile diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Nancy Reagan continued to bring attention to her husband legacy long after his death, and up until her own. Always in the public eye, this former First Lady and actress lived her life with courage, grace, and an unwavering devotion to her husband, family, God, and country.