This coming February 6 President Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old. He was born in Tampico, Illinois, a small town about 130 miles directly west of Chicago, my birthplace. Whatever your views of his presidency, President Reagan was the source of some very funny stories.
I first heard his name as a young boy, when he hosted the "General Electric Theater” and then later "Death Valley Days." My family and I used to watch him on our black and white television, a remarkable technological breakthrough back then.
Growing up, some of my earliest memories centered on baseball and the Chicago Cubs. Years before I was born, Reagan had already made a national name for himself recreating Cub games by reading the play by play off a teletype while broadcasting from his radio studio in Des Moines, Iowa.
Later, Reagan frequently told the story of the time the teletype froze during the last inning of a game between the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. He decided to take a chance and improvised. He tells it this way; "I had Jurges hit another foul. Then I had him foul one that only missed being a homerun by a foot. I had him foul one back in the stands and took up some time describing the two lads that got in a fight over the ball. I kept on having him foul balls until I was setting a record for a ballplayer hitting successive foul balls and I was getting more than a little scared. Just then my operator started typing. When he passed me the paper I started to giggle - it said: ‘Jurges popped out on the first ball pitched.’”
I first met President Reagan in 1981 near his Santa Barbara ranch. The White House held a picnic for the traveling press corps; I was the CBS News White House producer. I introduced myself and said, "I am responsible for that camera stationed on the next mountain with the big lens." We used the camera to capture video of President Reagan when he cleared brush or rode a horse on his ranch grounds.
Without missing a beat, President Reagan responded, "Well Joe, I told the secret service that one morning I am going to walk out on the porch," he then twisted to the left and ran his right finger under his nose before continuing on, "and then I am going to do this!" The president suddenly pulled his hands to his chest and pretended to stumble, as if he was having a heart attack.
I was stunned, but when he laughed I felt at ease. "Well Joe," he said, "the secret service did not like that, and neither did Nancy." I smiled and said, "I wouldn't have liked that either!" He then turned and introduced me to the First Lady.
Early on in his administration I found myself serving as the network pool producer for a presidential address from the Oval Office. After the speech was over, I walked up and stood beside the president’s desk. I congratulated the great communicator on his speech. I then complimented him on his desk.
"Well Joe," the president said and then began to tell me about the desk. I scanned the room and noticed that the staff was already becoming impatient; this was obviously not the first time they had all heard the story.
President Reagan used the famous Resolute desk, which was created from the timbers of a once sunken British ship of the same name. In the late 1800's, "sister" desks were made and Queen Victoria gave one to President Rutherford B. Hayes. There is an iconic photo of President John Kennedy working at the desk as his son crawled through the little door below.
As I stood listening to the president, he explained that he was taller than the last president to use the desk. He then pushed his chair back and pointed to the legs under the desk. "You see, I'm six foot one, so I had them extend the legs so I can sit at the desk." The president then laughed. A sigh of relief swept the room as he completed his story. "Thank you Joe," called out a staff member from the back of the room. I said goodbye and left with a smile on my face.
During his presidency I heard many funny stories about the president from members of his staff. There was the time a beeping sound could be heard during a cabinet meeting. As President Reagan sat calmly during a presentation, the White House Press Secretary realized where the beep was coming from. He tapped the president on the shoulder and mouthed the words, "Your hearing aid battery has died, Mr. President."
A former cabinet member told me about a famous incident that occurred during an important G-7 Summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. The night before the meeting a member of the president's staff pointed to a large Summit briefing book that they had left for him on the coffee table. The president thanked his team for their work as they retired. The next morning the staff members noted the briefing book had not been touched. President Reagan explained that he and Nancy had watched "The Sound of Music" instead.
President Reagan’s historical legacy will forever be defined by his strong stands against big government and the Soviet Union. Huge federal deficits, reductions in social programs, “Trickle Down Economics” and the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (derided as Star Wars) are among the many controversies that surround his two terms in office.
But on this, his 100th birthday, I will also remember his wonderful sense of humor.