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Finding some perspective in the Gipper’s hometown

Hennepin Avenue, renamed Reagan Way in Dixon, Ill., leads from the former president’s boyhood home to a statue along the riverfront of Ronald Reagan on horseback.

Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukval

Had Dixon not been Ronald Reagan's hometown, there would be little reason to stop in this central Illinois farming community. Some enterprising locals identified this niche some time ago and made it a must-do detour for diehard fans of the Gipper.

Up and down South Hennepin Avenue, renamed Reagan Way, you can take a tour of the clapboard house where the adolescent Ron lived, the school where he went to classes (and, all too often, the principal's office), the library where he checked out books and, of course, the church where he assiduously skipped services. In better weather, you might wander down to the beach on the Rock River, where a teenage Mr. Reagan worked as a lifeguard and is "credited with saving 77" souls from the current.

Except for the local fifth graders, whose social-studies curriculum gives them no choice in the matter, most of the people who voluntarily make this pilgrimage are Republicans.

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"Pretty much," offers Heidi Beaugrand-Eberhardt, who runs the gift shop next door to Mr. Reagan's boyhood residence, selling $179 (U.S.) Reagan busts and plenty of other Ron and Nancy trinkets imported from China. "We do have Democratic ties, though."

Dixon is in Lee County, which, according to The Geography of Presidential Elections, has not voted for a Democrat since before the Civil War. Yet, in this bastion of Republicanism, where Chicago is only a few hours – but a world – away, Beverly Pickering is brimming with a commodity all too rare in current American politics: perspective.

"We have over there some colouring books, one with [President Barack] Obama [on the cover] and another with Michelle Obama," relates the 71-year-old retired nurse and teacher who offers tours of the Reagan home, right down to a plate he ate off. "I've had people come through who were really upset that we had a picture of Obama. And I said: 'Well, you know, it's a colouring book.' "

Ms. Pickering cannot quite remember whether she voted for Mr. Reagan, but imagines she did "because it was such a big to-do in our town." She, like busloads of Dixonians, did attend Mr. Reagan's first inauguration in 1981, but not his second swearing-in.

"Like so many things, the second time round isn't near as exciting. That's how I think it is for Obama this year," she says, allowing that she voted for the first African-American presidential candidate in 2008 but is torn now between him and Mitt Romney.

"He's very international, I think," she says, approvingly, of Mr. Obama. "I do like Mitt Romney. However, the Republican Party has become so exclusive, I do not know if I can tolerate it. They are so against women's health issues."

She says she usually tries to stay neutral as a tour guide, but, on a roll, she adds: "That we have people in Congress saying we're not going to co-operate with [Mr. Obama] no matter what – that if he says 'yes,' they say 'no – that's just the biggest turnoff for me."

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Ms. Pickering grimaces. She is flustered, realizing perhaps the extent of her democratic dilemma. "I think we need two presidents," she concludes. "One for the economy and one for the foreign."

 

Dixon, Ill.

Population:

15,511

Demographics:

83 per cent white, 10 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic.

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Median household income:

$41,649 (U.S.), compared with $51,914 nationally.

Famous citizens:

Ronald Reagan lived in Dixon between 1920 and 1932, spending his formative years in the town. Pharmacy magnate Charles Walgreen opened his first drug store in Dixon in 1901.

Infamous citizens:

Dixon's long-time comptroller Rita Crundwell was indicted this year on federal and state charges of embezzling up to $53-million from the town's coffers. over more than two decades. Federal investigators say she used the money to support a cushy lifestyle breeding star quarter horses. An auction last month of her 400 horses and other assets raised $6-million. Good I Will Be, a three-time world champion horse, sold for $775,000 to a Canadian buyer. But Dixon will not get its hands on the money unless Ms. Crundwell is convicted.

Sources: U.S. Census, WLS-TV

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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