By Mike Murtagh
“The college years are some of the sweetest years of your life.”
Those words were spoken by Ronald Wilson Reagan in a video made to help recruit students for the Reagan Leadership Scholarship at Eureka College. It is an amazing video that is easily found on YouTube. The Reagan Scholarship is amazing too, as it is the only scholarship founded by a sitting United States President at his Alma Mater.
In 1994, Ronald Reagan was 83 years old. A few short months after the video was made, Reagan would write the now-famous Alzheimer’s disease letter that announced to the world his struggles with that horrible disease. The video is both reflective and optimistic. His purpose is clear. His optimism of the future is apparent.
As the Vice President of Advancement at Eureka College, I have the responsibility to manage and raise support for the Ronald W. Reagan Society. The purpose of the society is twofold; to support the leadership lessons of Ronald Reagan and to raise money for Eureka College. Eureka is one of only a few schools that raise support from the legacy of one alum. Given that there are only 8,300 living Eureka College graduates, it is easy to see why the College would choose to widen the net for support. Reagan gives Eureka College the opportunity to do just that.
I am often asked by people why do we do what we do. After all, the man has been dead for 14 years. How relevant can he be? Isn’t he too political? How can his story relate to students of today?
My answer to those questions is simple – and that is I believe Ronald Reagan is the most relevant role model for students of any American president, living or dead, and here is why.
Of the 44 men who have served as president, only 11 have completed two full terms and graduated from college. George Washington completed two terms but never graduated from college. The presidents that graduated with bachelor degrees did so from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, West Point, Columbia, Georgetown, William and Mary and one more. The one more is the outlier and it is Eureka Colleges.
All the other schools are located in the East between Boston and Charlottesville. All are highly selective big-named colleges and universities. Eureka College stands alone, located in the Midwest in the middle of the cornfields. The fact that the exception is a small liberal arts college is important, for it proves the theorem that you can come from anywhere in America and make a difference in the world. Reagan at Eureka is the proof.
Reagan’s relevance can be seen all around colleges like Eureka. As an example, 50 percent of Eureka students are Pell Grant eligible. Eureka is a private college for moderate income students. All Eureka College students receive some form of financial aid. Reagan did too. The son of an itinerant shoe salesmen whose mother worked as a seamstress, Reagan attended college on the “needy student scholarship.” Few would recognize that as a prestigious scholarship. Reagan appreciated that support and throughout his life gave generously to the College.
Today, the parents of many students are battling substance abuse issues. The opioid epidemic is devastating many families. Reagan could empathize with that. His dad suffered from alcoholism. His drinking took a toll on the Reagan family and had a profound influence on the future president.
Eureka College and similar liberal arts schools stress the importance of activities in helping to develop leadership and relationship skills. In the 1994 video, Reagan mentions the importance of these activities by calling Eureka students doers and stressing that the doing helps grow leadership skills. As President Reagan held cabinet meetings attended by graduates of Yale, Princeton, Stanford and other prestigious schools, the cabinet members looked to the graduate from Eureka College for leadership and affirmation. When you think about that, it’s truly amazing.
As we mark the 107th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, it is clear to me that he will become more relevant as time goes on. He is the proof that in America you can come from humble beginnings and achieve great things. You don’t have to go to big schools to make a difference. You don’t have to be privileged to help others. You can come from the prairie and be a leader. Many of America’s best leaders have done just that.