President Ronald Reagan has been dead for nearly 15 years. Today’s youth see him as many of us similarly saw Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy – men who evolved into monuments, their static images staring back at us across time and space.
Historians and pundits still debate the significance and success of Reagan’s presidency. But as the curtain falls on 2018, I’m reminded of what an unlikely meeting with him taught me about setting goals and pursuing dreams at the start of a new year.
I was in the third grade at St. Christopher’s School on Long Island when Reagan was inaugurated. On that cold January day in 1981, our teacher, Mrs. Campbell, rolled the black and white television set into our classroom.
We watched as the actor-turned-politician took the presidential oath at the same time that 52 American hostages were being released from 444 days of captivity in Iran.
Growing up, I idolized President Reagan. To me, he was (and still is) the gold standard of the presidency – ideologically strong and conservatively resolute, and also a gracious gentleman of good manners and high ideals.
I used to dream of meeting and interviewing President Reagan one day. But why would the world’s most powerful man be willing to see me? It was a far-fetched fantasy.
Just after I graduated from college in 1994, President Reagan penned his heartbreaking Alzheimer’s announcement. Because of the disease, he said he would be withdrawing from public view. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he poignantly wrote.
Given the seeming finality of such a statement, I was surprised to receive a letter from my mother one day in November 1997 that contained a newspaper article mentioning that Reagan still met, on occasion, with ordinary Americans.
At the time, I was in graduate school and very unsure about my future. I had been a budding writer and the kid with the radio dream of hosting my own interview show. Although I had worked at both a radio station and a newspaper, I had yet to seriously pursue anything with gusto.
In retrospect, I was insecure and unsure of myself. I daydreamed but didn’t do much to make the dreams a reality.
In fact, I remember getting a lump in my throat while watching the movie “Rudy,” the true story of Rudy Ruettiger, an undersized kid from Illinois who dreamed about playing football for the University of Notre Dame.
“The problem with dreamers,” Rudy’s high school teacher once scolded him, “is they aren’t doers.”
That type of cold but candid criticism hit close to home. Reading the article about President Reagan, I made up my mind to fulfill a lifelong dream and request a meeting.
“Be bold,” the Canadian clergyman Basil King once wrote, “and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
I received a call from President Reagan’s office just two weeks later. “When would you like to come and visit and meet with the great man?” the person on the line asked.
Arriving at his 34th floor office atop the Century City Office Tower in Los Angeles, his assistant prepared me for the meeting. “Let him lead,” she said. “He has good days and bad days.”
Fortunately, the day of my visit was a good one. President Reagan greeted me warmly and we exchanged pleasantries. He asked me about my school and work and how I liked California.
The former president then told a humorous story about an interaction with a young boy in the park across the street. Throwing back his shoulders, he laughed heartily and – as if I were an old friend – slapped me on the back.
It was a surreal 15 minutes. Here I was, an ordinary 25-year-old American citizen, talking with a man who helped change the world. But it only happened because I had the audacity to ask for a meeting in the first place.
There’s a no-nonsense biblical exhortation that we “have not” because “we ask not.” In asking, our motives must be good and our desire should be to serve others rather than ourselves.
What are your dreams for the coming year? What is your great desire? Is there some audacious, unlikely goal you’ve wanted to pursue – but hesitate to go after out of fear?
Ronald Reagan’s legacy grows larger with the passage of time. My mother, who led me to write the letter seeking to meet the former president, has been gone for years.
But as the new year approaches and hope springs eternal – as it does each January – the memory of that fateful meeting is a reminder that we all need to take a chance in 2019.
What did I learn from asking to meet with President Reagan? I learned to ask the question. Chase the dream. Sow the seed and run the risk of rejection.
In the words of the late William Borden, the millionaire-turned-missionary who gave away his fortune in order share his faith – only to die before his work even began – may you be able to say by this time next year “no reserves, no retreat, no regrets.”