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The Passing of a President

Mourners flock to pay respects

Ex-president's casket viewed by thousands near Simi Valley, Calif.

By Fred Alvarez, Martha Groves and Sue Fox

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

June 8, 2004

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Under mournful skies, a motorcade carried former President Reagan along miles of cleared freeways from a Santa Monica funeral home to his presidential library near Simi Valley on Monday, the first step in a weeklong journey to the nation's Capitol and back.

On the hilltop campus where he eventually will be buried, a grieving Nancy Reagan pressed a cheek to her husband's flag-draped coffin, and thousands of other mourners arrived by the busload to shuffle past the bier.

As of 10 p.m. Monday, more than 16,000 people had gone through the viewing area at the library.

Reagan's body will lie in repose at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library until Wednesday morning, when it will be flown to Washington to lie in state at the Capitol. After funeral services Friday, the body will be returned to the library grounds for a private interment. Reagan died Saturday at his Bel-Air home at 93.

A popular president in life, Reagan has prompted an outpouring of adoration in death that no American politician has evoked since the 1960s assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Crowds began gathering before dawn at Moorpark College, from which shuttle buses would take visitors to the nearby Reagan library beginning at noon. Other people made an early morning pilgrimage to the Kingsley & Gates, Moller & Murphy Funeral Home in Santa Monica, where Nancy Reagan and other family members assembled to accompany Reagan's hearse on the late morning drive to Simi Valley.

Wearing a black suit and a string of large pearls, the former first lady walked slowly, stopping to look at the mortuary lawn, which was strewn with flags, signs, bouquets and balloons. More than 200 people stood in the morning chill and applauded her.

Among them was Ilona Guillemet, who came to the United States 25 years ago from Hungary. Reagan, she said, "was the only president I know who wasn't afraid of the Russians. He stood up to them."

A Girl Scout, too young to have been born when Reagan left office in 1989, carried a sign reading: "Farewell President Reagan. Thank you for making America the greatest place to live."

On the other end of the spectrum were those old enough to remember Reagan the film star, and to have followed his political career since his first, successful campaign for governor of California in 1966.

Ann Thompson of Pacific Palisades, who showed up at 6 a.m., said she had bet a friend that Reagan would be victorious in that first election. She mailed the $50 winning check to the new governor, asking for an autograph. He complied and also sent a letter.

"He said, 'Make more bets,' " Thompson recalled. "I've been an avid booster ever since. I just knew California was ready for him, just like I knew the nation was ready for him when he won for president."

As the procession made its way down Wilshire Boulevard just after 10 a.m., Eileen Schanda was one of hundreds of people waiting on the sidewalk to catch a glimpse.

"I got very emotional, and I didn't think I would," Schanda said. "I came down here to get as close to him on his last ride home."

Perhaps the years have eased the anger that Reagan once evoked among liberals, or perhaps his political antagonists stayed away out of respect, spite or indifference. For whatever reason, the glowing remembrances were countered by only the mildest criticism.

Deborah Smith of West Los Angeles said "pure curiosity" prompted her to show up with her teenage son, Ryan. "I am not a fan at all," she said. "The word 'civil rights' never came out of his mouth."

The motorcade turned north onto the San Diego Freeway, which had been cleared by the California Highway Patrol, and cruised over empty lanes in a sedate journey highlighted by small, reverential crowds gathered on many of the overpasses along the way.

A squad of about 10 firefighters raised their ladders in an inverted "V" on the Mulholland Drive overpass and draped a giant American flag in salute.

The honor, normally reserved for firefighters fallen in the line of duty, was meant to show how Reagan was beloved by those in public safety for his policies and character, said Capt. Bill Dakin of the 10th Battalion.

"I didn't know it would affect me this way, but yesterday I was depressed all day," said Benny Ortiz, 48, the firefighter chosen to climb up the 100-foot ladder and unfurl the 20-by-40-foot flag.

"He was our kind of man, very straightforward," Ortiz said, holding the flag. "We're barely starting to see now what he accomplished."

Anne Clar, 59, a retired hospital administrator who lives in Bel-Air, said she had gone to the Sunset Boulevard overpass to watch O.J. Simpson during his infamous slow-speed chase 10 years ago, and felt she had to do the same for Reagan. "This is a famous corner now," she said.

The motorcade turned onto the Ronald Reagan Freeway in the north San Fernando Valley and headed west toward Ventura County.

At precisely 11 a.m., the motorcade climbed a narrow roadway leading to the hilltop library, a road lined with presidential banners and small American flags fluttering in the wind. A CHP motorcycle officer led the procession of 20 other vehicles.

The silence was broken only by the rustling of trees and a CHP helicopter flying low across the canyon in advance of the entourage. Soldiers stood at attention along the roadside at the entrance to the 100-acre library campus and moved into a full salute as the hearse carrying Reagan's body approached.

The hearse, an American flag posted on each fender, made a half circle around the oval driveway at the library's entrance. The back door to the vehicle opened, revealing the flag-draped, solid mahogany casket.

The hearse was followed by a line of sport-utility vehicles and black limousines, the first carrying Nancy Reagan, son Ronald Prescott Reagan and daughter Patti Davis.

Holding Patti's hand and the arm of Army Maj. Gen. Galen B. Jackman, Nancy Reagan looked on as a color guard made up of members from all the armed services marched toward the hearse.

A Marine gripped the casket. At an inching pace, he pulled it from the hearse into the waiting, white-gloved hands of his comrades.

A 30-piece Marine Corps band from Twentynine Palms struck up "Hail to the Chief," and for the first time all morning, the sun poked out from the sky. The clouds reclaimed the sun as the band segued into a slow, dirge-like rendition of "My Country 'tis of Thee."

Four on each side, trailed a few steps by Nancy Reagan and her two children, the pallbearers carried the casket through a tree-lined courtyard, into the library and past a 10-foot bronze statue of a smiling Reagan holding a cowboy hat. It was then placed on the waiting catafalque, which was draped in black velvet.

The Rev. Michael Wenning, retired from Bel-Air Presbyterian Church, conducted a brief service, reading Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer to a few family members, including Nancy Reagan, children Patti Davis, Ron and Michael Reagan, as well as Dennis Revell, the husband of the late Maureen Reagan. Among the honorary pallbearers present was entertainer Merv Griffin.

At the end of the service, Patti Davis led a halting Nancy Reagan to the casket. The former first lady patted and caressed the American flag covering the coffin, then laid her cheek on the flag's field of stars, as if in a hug. Rising, she patted the flag again and was enveloped in her daughter's arms. An observer said she appeared to be crying.

The private ceremony ended in less than an hour. For a few more minutes, the color guard stood alone around the casket as cordons were set up around a square of blue carpet.

Before any members of the public entered, the library allowed Reagan's former lieutenant governor, Ed Reinecke, and his wife, Jean, to have a private moment with the casket.

Reinecke, now retired and living in Solvang and Rancho Mirage, said afterward that both had begun crying.

Asked to sum up Reagan's legacy, he said: "I think it was the philosophy of government, that it should be of and for the people, rather than of and for the government. He just turned the whole thing around."

By noon, a slow parade of Los Angeles MTA buses began disgorging members of the public 50 at a time to circle the casket and pay their final respects. They were averaging 1,800 an hour, according to library officials.

Security, shared by federal, state and local law officers, was tighter than at many events during Reagan's presidency.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, were among the first visitors. They pulled up to a side entrance at 12:10 p.m. and were allowed into the viewing area as the public was briefly held back.

After approaching the casket, Schwarzenegger whispered to Shriver. They both crossed themselves, and Schwarzenegger placed a single white rose onto the catafalque.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry planned to pay his respects today.

Most visitors to the Reagan library were from outside the sphere of public life. Their orderly, somber procession was made all the more striking by the California casual dress. Dark suits and dresses were vastly outnumbered by jeans and T-shirts, short skirts and halter tops.

Lyle McCollam and his 14-year-old daughter Ashley drove two hours from Lomita to join the thousands of mourners. It took them four hours to board a bus from Moorpark College and make it to the library. It took about 15 minutes to pass by the casket.

The father and daughter said they decided immediately after learning of the president's death to make the pilgrimage. Lyle McCollam, a Los Angeles County paramedic, called Reagan the "father of the paramedic program" because he backed the law decades ago that established the emergency medical service.

"He's a true American. He symbolizes America," McCollam said, adding that Reagan was the first president he voted for. "He's just overall a great, great man."

Contributing to coverage of the Reagan memorial were Times staff writers Fred Alvarez, Andrew Blankstein, Amanda Covarrubias, Sue Fox, Gregory W. Griggs, Martha Groves, Daryl Kelley, Regine Labossiere, Mitchell Landsberg, Joe Mathews, Bob Pool, Jean-Paul Renaud, Catherine Saillant, Stephanie Stassel, Julie Tamaki, Wlliam Wan and Holly J. Wolcott.