Long before Ol' Blue Eyes and his "town Billy Sunday couldn't shut down," one future President's father had the time of his life there selling shoes and drinking booze. In December of 1914, John E. Reagan moved his family to Chicago's South Side to sell shoes for Marshall Field's department store. Off hours, he drank too much and often ended up in the drunk tank. When he sobered up, Jack returned to his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood at 832 East 57th Street.
In that cold-water, gas-lit first floor apartment, his son Ronald Reagan would celebrate his fourth birthday. From battling pneumonia to playing with a neighbor's set of lead soldiers, "Dutch," as he was known in his youth, formed his first childhood memories in Chicago. In fact, as he wrote in a 1988 letter, Reagan decided he wanted to become a fireman after looking out onto 57th Street and seeing horse-drawn fire carriages "come down the street at full gallop."
Until the election of Barack Obama, Reagan was the only President to have ever lived in the city of Chicago and is the only President to have been born and raised in Illinois. He attended Eureka College (about 140 miles southwest of the City) and after graduation became a play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs. Reagan was a Chicagoan at heart.
Now, on what would have been the Gipper's 102nd birthday, a wrecking ball is swinging dangerously close to our Great Communicator's boyhood home. The building, now owned by the University of Chicago, is set for demolition to make way for a hospital facility fittingly associated with Alzheimer's disease research. But as a Hyde Park Historical Society board member warned: "Whatever you think of Reagan -- once the building's gone, it's gone forever."
There is some hope. Just as Young America's Foundation saved Reagan's Rancho del Cielo in California, the Friends of President Reagan's Chicago Home was incorporated to save another piece of history. You can do your part here.
No, an old apartment is not a slab of the Berlin Wall, but the time the Reagans spent in the big city helped develop the character of our 40th President of the United States. This rough-and-tumble working-class city taught Reagan his Midwestern grit at an early age.
Perhaps no one would have known where exactly the President lived if it wasn't for the late Chicago conservative godfather Thomas F. Roeser. In 1979, Tom was asked to have lunch with then-Candidate Reagan during a layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport. In conversation (one rife with original anecdotes and stories), Reagan mentioned that he had lived in the Windy City as a boy. After Reagan's inauguration, Roeser phoned the White House and through some channels, Roeser got his answer: Jack Reagan was a common drunk. Look it up.
"What struck me about that experience was the comfort that Reagan had living in his own skin, the son of an alcoholic, who suggested that his father's detention records be looked up," Roeser later wrote. "Not many successful men -- much less the president of the United States -- would so voluntarily give out that information."
Roeser eventually made his way to 832 East 57th Street and knocked on the door. Upon learning that Ronald Reagan had once lived in their apartment, the current residents slammed the door in Roeser's face.
Help the Friends of President Reagan's Chicago Home keep the door open for generations to come.