Forty years ago this month, Nancy Reagan visited Fresno, playing the role of stand-in for her husband, Ronald Reagan.
She’d been in these parts before. A coffee in Visalia, a lunch in Dinuba and a tea in Hanford during one visit to the central San Joaquin Valley.
And always, it seemed, in a similar role.
“In California, she was the surrogate,” says local attorney Don Jackson.
But that visit 40 years ago during the 1976 state Republican convention was especially important. Reagan was in a heated battle with President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford came to Fresno to address delegates. Ronald Reagan couldn’t make it because of a prior commitment, so Nancy came instead.
Nancy Reagan died Sunday in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 94. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
Jackson – a confidant of the late Sen. Ken Maddy of Fresno who played key roles in Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns – remembered Nancy Reagan as always being there for her husband, from his time as California governor through his two terms in the White House.
“The reason she was there, aside from personal support, was to make sure he was taken care of,” says Jackson, 79. “She was very protective of him.”
It was Nancy Reagan, Jackson says, who made sure Reagan got to his hotel room and and got rest, who made sure he was fed properly, and who stayed “pretty much on an even keel.”
It all seemed normal to those around them, Jackson says, because it came “out of love and caring and all those good things. She was at heart a very good person.”
It’s unknown how many times Nancy Reagan came to the Valley, but it doesn’t appear she visited after Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
Former Secretary of State Bill Jones was just starting his political career as Reagan was moving from California to the national political stage. He mostly admired the Reagans from afar and only met Nancy Reagan a few times later in her life.
In 2002, Jones says, Nancy Reagan did an event for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, who ended up losing to Gray Davis that year. And when Jones was California Secretary of State, Reagan allowed him access to to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
“She was always very gracious,” Jones says.
Whirlwind visit in ’66
One of her earliest Valley political visits came in September 1966, when Ronald Reagan was running for governor. Nancy Reagan was defending an actor seeking to enter politics, and the grace that Jackson describes was evident: “People should be judged as individuals, not by their professions, not by the color of their skin, their religion or creed,” she said in an interview with The Bee.
That was when Reagan attended the coffee in Visalia, lunch in Reedley and tea in Hanford. The visit came just a few months before Reagan won his first term as California governor. He ended up serving two terms.
She would later return as the state’s first lady, including in August 1973 when she was the special guest at the 20th anniversary celebration for the Porterville State Hospital.
GOP convention appearance in ’76
By 1976, Ronald Reagan was the Republican insurgent, taking on incumbent – though never elected – President Ford, who took over the White House when Richard Nixon resigned.
Ford came to Fresno in late March for the state GOP convention, addressing 1,200 delegates at the Fresno Convention Center.
Nancy Reagan was honored later that same afternoon at a reception.
The battle was over Republican support ahead of the state’s June primary, which Reagan won. He lost the Republican presidential nomination to Ford, however, and Ford lost that year to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Jackson, a lawyer, was a Reagan delegate at the 1976 national convention in Kansas City, where he was selected to lead the floor demonstrations for Reagan.
At the 1980 convention in Detroit, Jackson again was there for Reagan. This time, he was convention production coordinator, assisting in the preparation and timing of presentations. He also coordinated the speakers and programs each night.
By that time, he didn’t see Nancy Reagan very often. But she commanded respect, he says.
“She had a lot of what I’d call class, dignity, whatever you call it. She was a first-class lady, therefore she got treated that way.”
Nancy Reagan’s funeral
Where: Reagan Library in Simi Valley
When: 11 a.m. Friday (private)
Public viewing: Wednesday from 1 to 7 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
More information: Reagan Library’s Facebook page