Born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, Ronald Reagan was the son of a second-generation Irish shoe salesman. Reagan’s father was an alcoholic who lost his job on Christmas Eve, at the onset of the Great Depression, and struggled thereafter to support his family. His mother, a pious woman of Scotch and English descent, was known for her service to the less fortunate, and she often visited the county jail to sing hymns and read the Bible to prisoners.
The family, which moved from place to place as Reagan’s father sought work, never owned a home of its own. Reagan worked at odd jobs—including being a lifeguard—to save money for college, excelled in sports, and was active in the high school drama club. At Eureka College, he studied sociology and economics, returning home each summer to work as a lifeguard at the local pool.
After college, Reagan became a baseball announcer for the Chicago Cubs at WHO radio in Des Moines. While traveling with the Cubs in California, he took a screen test, which led to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. He starred in Love Is in the Air in 1937 and made 19 films over the next two years. When the United States entered World War II, Reagan joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to a unit making training films. Returning to Hollywood after the war, he was cast as the leading man in 50 films. He served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild for 22 years and was president of the union from 1947 to 1952.
Although a Democrat until 1962, Reagan won national political prominence with a televised speech supporting Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. In 1966, he was elected governor of California, winning re-election in 1970. As governor, Reagan gained a national reputation as an executive who fought hard for his point of view but was willing to compromise. He won the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1980 and soundly defeated Jimmy Carter, the incumbent Democrat.
Reagan began his presidency with the release of the 52 American hostages in Iran and is credited with ending the Cold War and bringing down the Berlin Wall. When he left office in 1989, his approval rating was the highest final rating of any U.S. president since World War II.
In 1989, Reagan received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. In 1991, the Ronald Reagan Library and Center for Public Affairs opened in Simi Valley, California. Three years later, Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Espousing individual rights and responsibilities and urging a return to “traditional values,” Reagan was often credited with restoring America’s pride and rebuilding a spirit of patriotism. “Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind us—that the American spirit has been vanquished,” he said in a 1982 State of the Union message. “We’ve seen it triumph too often in our lives to stop believing in it now.”