The bubbly redhead arrived in the office early to sing for President Reagan, and it was clear she had thought carefully about how she would appear before the president. Her hair was curled tightly, make up professionally done, navy blue and white nautical outfit was patriotic. Though a seasoned professional singer, she was nervous and excited, awed by this opportunity. Her thick Kentucky accent was the type that made you feel upon first meeting that you could trust her with your life and that she would be a new forever friend. Both would turn out to be instinctively true.
It was early summer and the Fourth of July was approaching. As a staff we wanted to do something to honor Ronald Reagan as the former President and Commander in Chief. We tried to do something similar several times a year as it provided a great excuse for an office party and broke the monotony of the daily routine. We brought children’s choirs, barber shop quartets, solo artists and even a duet of older gentlemen who played a banjo, and an accordion while they sang in matching suits and ties. Regardless of the variation of style or sound, the substance was always the same. When these groups came to see the president, they sang or played patriotic music. Of course! He loved it and would often tap his toes in time to the music and sing along to every verse – verses I didn’t even know existed. But he did. And he didn’t miss a word.
I loved sitting next to him when he sang. He had a singing voice that was deep and clear, reminding me of my grandfather’s. If I sat next to Grandpa in church, when he hit a low note, the whole pew vibrated. President Reagan’s voice was easily distinguishable even amidst a chorus of voices in the room as well because he was not just mouthing lyrics from a song, but because he knew how to express a depth of feeling with his voice. The emotion that moved him to sing was his genuine pride and heartfelt love for our country.
On this particular day, our guest sang two of President Reagan’s favorites. She began with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The staccato of the verses were punctuated by the president’s enthusiasm for her performance. You could tell he was not exclusively caught up in the melody or the tempo, but because of the way she was singing - he was hearing the meaning of the words and the symbolism.
She concluded to an enthusiastic round of applause from the dozen or more people gathered in the conference room. As the performer moved on to, “America the Beautiful”, the atmosphere changed. The Battle Hymn was upbeat, a marching song which was replaced with a slow, sweet anthem. “O beautiful, for spacious skies…..” she began. She started low and reflective, filling the room with clear tones, clear words and the clear voice of an angel.
As it began to build, I glanced over at the President, who was fully captivated by her and as the second verse began, “O beautiful, for pilgrim feet….” without a glance around or giving it a second thought, he instinctively rose to his feet, putting his hand over his heart and started singing along with her, louder now.
The rest of us quickly rose to our feet as well, joining him in putting our hands over our hearts and singing along. I doubt he even noticed. He was treasuring this concert for one, completely in tune with his God and his country. Since I was born with blood that runs red, white and blue, seeing his authentic love for his country, without regard for what those around him would think, gave me a lump in my throat.
As the song went into the fourth and final verse, “O beautiful, for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years….” the President stood taller and straighter as if at full attention before God and man, and as she finished the final stanza, “America, America, God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!” I looked over at the president who had eyes filled with tears and an overwhelming look of pride on his face. He remained still for a moment at full attention. Seeing this, my eyes also filled with tears, as did everyone’s in the room.
Think of how many times he had heard these songs sung. And yet they still stirred his soul. His faith in God and in God’s providence over this country was unshakable and was at the very core of his being. It was the essence of who he was.
He loved this blessed land with every ounce of his being. And we loved him for it.
Peggy Grande is author of "The President Will See You Now", a keynote speaker and a specialty project consultant. She was the executive assistant to president Ronald Reagan from 1989 – 1999.