LOS ANGELES – The world knew Ronald Reagan (search) as the Great Communicator for his now-famous phrases on the world stage — from challenging the "evil empire" to asking his Soviet counterpart to "tear down this wall." But one of Reagan's great gifts was his ability to communicate on a much smaller scale, to connect with people he met on a personal level.
Those who knew him, including reporters who covered him regularly, found him always ready with a joke. Wit and down-home wisdom were his trademarks in almost any setting.
Reagan always brushed aside the Great Communicator label, saying "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
One of the tragedies of his battle with Alzheimer's (search), which he lost June 5 at age 93, is that the disease ended his ability to tell stories and jokes. He spent his last decade almost completely sheltered from the public and hadn't recognized his own children in years.
Before his public disclosure that he was suffering from Alzheimer's, when he poignantly told America that he had begun the journey that would take him into the sunset of his life, Reagan loved to tell stories.
In his post-White House years, he could enrapture a small crowd with the simple details of pruning oak trees, one of his favorite pastimes at his Santa Barbara County ranch.
"Well, that reminds me of a story," Reagan would say whenever he started a tale, making the room grow hushed.
In 1990, he told an Associated Press reporter about a brief trip to see the family's future home while he was still president.
Nancy Reagan spirited him away from the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City to see the Bel-Air house she had found for their post-White House years. With a twinkle in his blue eyes, he related how he rode the five miles crouched on the floor of a sedan.
"If I went any place, the press would have been in attendance, and we didn't want that publicity at the time," he said. "She said if I was willing to get down on the floor of the car and go there, the press wouldn't be following or any photographers or anything, so I did. I didn't get up until we were in the driveway."
Reagan often told jokes to set a room at ease. One he told repeatedly was about a businessman who ordered flowers for the opening of his new office.
The man was shocked when the flowers arrived with a card reading "Rest in peace." He complained to the florist, who told him: "Just remember that there's somebody today getting the message 'Congratulations on your new location.'"
He also didn't mind making fun of himself, particularly his age.
"I can remember when a hot story broke and reporters would run off and shout 'Stop the chisels,'" Reagan was fond of saying in his later years, referring jokingly to ancient text hammered into stone.
One of the most touching aspects of the former president's life was his relationship with Nancy. Their 52-year marriage was like a continuous love affair, eloquently illustrated during his burial last week when Nancy said her final goodbye, resting her head on his casket and crying.
In this, too, Reagan was a great communicator.
On their wedding anniversary each year, Reagan would write his wife a love letter. She recently published a book of his letters to her.
On their 25th anniversary, the couple slid into a canoe Reagan had named "Tru Luv" and paddled onto a small lake on their 88-acre Rancho del Cielo.
"I'm old-fashioned, I know, but I thought it would be so romantic if he was playing a ukulele," Nancy Reagan once said.
"I don't have a ukulele," her husband told her.
"I said 'That's OK. You can hum,'" she laughed. And he did.
As Alzheimer's tightened its grip on the former president, such moments became few. Still, his ability to communicate his love to his wife never disappeared entirely.
Once in recent years, while returning from a neighborhood walk, Reagan strolled up the wrong driveway.
A Secret Service (search) agent gently tried to correct him, telling him his house was up the street. Reagan, as if his detour had been planned, ripped a rose from a bush and said "I know. I was getting this for my love."
His last act may have been his greatest role as a communicator. It was certainly his most personal.
Nearing death at the family's home, Reagan had not opened his eyes in days, had not spoken in weeks. Just before taking his last breath, his eyes opened, bright and blue, gazing straight at his wife one final time. Nancy Reagan told her family that gaze was the greatest gift he could have given her.
"The last thing he did in this world was to show my mother how entwined their souls are," their daughter, Patti Davis, wrote last week in People magazine. "And it was everything."