Nancy Reagan remembered for fierce devotion, 'strength of conviction'

What they’re saying:

“Dianne and I are extremely saddened by the passing of Nancy Reagan, and we extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to all of her extended family. Nancy was a remarkable woman, a powerful First Lady, a devoted wife and loving mother. The legacy she leaves behind will be forever memorialized through her many charitable contributions, including her work to promote the better treatment of America’s veterans.” — U.S. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

“Mrs. Reagan will always be admired for her strength of conviction and her lifelong devotion to her husband. Her ‘just say no’ campaign prevented many young people from falling prey to the allure of drug use; and her advocacy for stem cell research raised public awareness and influenced decision makers about vital research for Alzheimer’s disease.” — Former President Jimmy Carter.

“They were bigger than life. She was elegant. Magnetic. And she raised the classiness level of the room everywhere she went.” — State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, who worked in the White House press office in the Reagan Administration.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was a determined foe of drug abuse who fiercely defended both her husband and her causes on trips to Georgia during his administration. She died Sunday of congestive heart failure, at the age of 94.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who was unseated by Ronald Reagan in 1981 after one term in office, said in a statement that Mrs. Reagan will “always be admired for her strength of conviction and her lifelong devotion to her husband.”

The former actress first entered the political arena when her husband was elected California governor in 1966. At first she was viewed as frivolous — a mediocre actress in a swirl of designer gowns — but later she fended off accusations that she’d become a “dragon lady” wielding unchecked power within Ronald Reagan’s administration.

For Georgians, Reagan’s win marked a turning point for state politics, where Democrats had held sway in presidential elections going back to the post-Civil War era. In the three-plus decades since he won the presidency, Bill Clinton was the only contender to get Georgia’s nod in a White House bid, in 1992. The state remains a Republican bastion.

Rusty Paul, a former state Republican Party chair who was Reagan’s Georgia communications director in his 1980 race, remembered the couple journeying to the Macon Hilton in the heat of the campaign to meet with Greg Brezina, then a linebacker for the Falcons.

Brezina, who now runs a Christian counseling ministry, asked the two about their religious beliefs.

“I could feel Mrs. Reagan just tense up. I could tell she thought it was a personal experience,” said Paul, who is now the Sandy Springs mayor. “Gov. Reagan just gave a fantastic answer. But you could see that every one of Mrs. Reagan’s defensive shields just went up. She had a high sense of what was appropriate and inappropriate.”

Joe Wilkinson, a state representative in Sandy Springs, worked in the White House press office in the Reagan Administration. He said Nancy Reagan could “see right through people.”

“If you’ve got a jolly commanding officer, you better have one tough executive officer who is your No. 2,” said Wilkinson. “And she was. She was very protective of the president.”

Her most high-profile cause as first lady was her “Just Say No” campaign warning young people about drug abuse.

Each year, she would travel to Atlanta to participate in Parents Resource Institute Drug Education (PRIDE) Foundation conference hosted by Georgia State University. At one, Wilkinson said she wound up at a table with actor William Shatner, who bent her ear on a nutritional fad he had embraced. When he asked her how it went afterwards, she shrugged.

“She said, ‘Sweetie, you forget I’m from California. I’ve got friends who will only eat butterfly wings and lettuce every day,’” Wilkinson recalled.

Retired GSU Professor Thomas Gleaton, who founded the Atlanta-based PRIDE Foundation, lunched with Nancy Reagan several times during her visits. He reminisced that in public, she came across as somewhat stilted. But in person she was all graciousness and warmth. She asked him for a hug when they parted, Gleaton said.

“Her husband was an excellent (public) speaker, but she wasn’t,” Gleaton said. “She did better on a one-to-one basis than she did in front of large audiences.”

A more harrowing event unfolded in Georgia after one of the conferences, as the First Lady and 15 others prepared to depart from Fulton County Airport for Washington D.C. in an Air Force C-9. While preparing for takeoff, the plane slipped, jostling the passengers.

“She was visibly shaken,” her then-press secretary, Elaine Crispen, told reporters at the time. “And her first comment was, ‘Is everyone all right?’”

Her anti-drug advocacy got results, according to Gleaton, who retired in 1992. She brought the first ladies of 16 other countries, including Turkey, Bermuda and Portugal, to the PRIDE conferences. And with them, an international spotlight.

Before the end of her husband’s terms in office, hundreds of millions of dollars had been poured into drug education for schoolchildren. Drug prevention programs were set up in nearly every school in the nation. And reports of recent illicit drug use within the past 30 days among high school seniors went from 37 to 21 percent, according to funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Nancy Reagan had “an awful lot” to do with that, said Gleaton.

“Without the White House and the presidency coming on board, we would not have been nearly so successful,” he said.

She waged quieter battles, too. She leveraged her influence on her husband to urge him to finally break his long silence on the AIDS crisis. She nudged him to accept responsibility for the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair. And she buttressed advisers pushing Reagan to thaw relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, over the objections of the administration’s “evil empire” hawks.

After her husband left office and disclosed that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan scaled back public appearances and served as his full-time caregiver. After his death in 2004, she tended to his legacy through his presidential library in Simi Valley, California. She also championed Alzheimer’s patients, raising millions of dollars for research and breaking with fellow conservative Republicans to advocate for stem cell research.

He was the center of her life for the 52 years of their marriage. “When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it’s true. It did. I can’t imagine life without him,” she told Vanity Fair some years before his death.

The couple’s mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. They were forever holding hands. She watched his political speeches with a look of such steady adoration it was dubbed “the gaze.” He called her “Mommy” and penned a lifetime of gushing love notes. She saved these letters, published them as a book, and found them a comfort when he could no longer remember her.

Nancy Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, in New York City, the daughter of a stage actress and a salesman who divorced when she was 7. Her circumstances were unstable until her mother married Loyal Davis, a well-to-do Chicago doctor. He adopted Nancy when she was 14.

A 1943 graduate of Smith College, she became a moderately successful actress who appeared in about a dozen movies during the 1940s and 1950s. The 5-foot-4, doe-eyed brunette was cast mostly as loyal housewives and mothers.

She met Ronald Reagan when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild and sought his help in straightening out an error that had led to her name being included on a list of Communist sympathizers. They were married in 1952 and had two children, Patti and Ron, born in 1952 and 1958, respectively.

For many years, Nancy Reagan had difficult relationships with her children and stepchildren, Maureen and Michael, who were her husband’s children with his first wife, Jane Wyman. She eventually reconciled with her children.

* Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this article.