As the Feb. 6 centennial of former President Ronald Reagan’s birth is observed, many Americans of a certain age are remembering his communication skills, optimistic manner and conservative vision for the country.
A number of Chattanoogans or former Chattanoogans also feel close to him for a more literal and tangible reason – they attended or took part in his memorable 1987 visit to the Scenic City.
On May 19 of that year, he came to Chattanooga for a three-hour visit to speak to local high school graduates at what is now UTC McKenzie Arena.
During his stop, he dined with local students and teachers and was even introduced by then-Red Bank High School student and Tennessee Junior Miss Deanna Duncan, who later received a medical degree.
It was the first visit to Chattanooga by a sitting president since Lyndon Johnson made a campaign appearance at Lovell Field in the fall of 1964 on his way to an easy victory.
President Reagan had also visited Chattanooga in May 1976, when he spoke to a packed audience at Tennessee Temple University’s McGilvray Gymnasium when unsuccessfully trying to secure the Republican presidential nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford.
I was working for the Chattanooga Free Press in 1987 as a 27-year-old and was asked along with fellow reporter Cindy Wooten, later Cindy Pare, to attend the luncheon with the President. Joining him were selected public school students and teachers at the Blue and Gold Room of UTC’s University Center, which was later expanded and altered.
Both the assignment and the expected accessibility were a little vague, if I remember correctly, but I figured we would be able to observe the interaction between the students and President Reagan. We would also interview the students about their experiences and possibly even ask the President a question.
President Reagan had arrived at Lovell Field shortly before the lunch hour that Tuesday and was taken by presidential motorcade to the University Center.
This was well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack but after the 1981 presidential assassination attempt, so plenty of security was in place. I remember seeing serious-looking marksmen standing on top of the University Center and possibly a helicopter flying overhead.
The Secret Service also watched the cooks prepare the President’s food.
After Cindy and I went into the University Center, we learned that we would not be allowed into the luncheon. That was no big deal with me, although I believe Cindy was a little disappointed.
As a result, Cindy and I went and ate at an open dining hall inside the student center before figuring out what kind of story we could get.
Jeff Powell, the Free Press political reporter at the time, did get to go inside and interview the President briefly with probably fewer than five or 10 other local reporters, and I understand some of the national media briefly went into the luncheon for a quick photo opportunity.
I found out later that the well-known and assertive ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson shouted a pointed question at the President, and the President waved him off. And I remember that Jeff proudly played on his tape recorder in the newsroom the next day or so a bold question he had asked the President.
Cindy and I, meanwhile, went outside the University Center after eating and hung out on the sidewalk by a fence in an area where we thought the students would be leaving. We must have stayed there 30 minutes or longer watching the large crowd of graduating students and others head for the arena for the President’s speech.
Eventually, we saw the students who had dined with the President come out. We were each able to get the comments of two or three students, so we felt good that we at least had a small story to begin putting together.
But I have not forgotten how awkward the situation seemed to be almost shouting through the fence while trying to get the attention of fast-walking high school students. I was thankful some politely obliged and we did not have to do any explaining to the editors why we did not have a story.
After briefly interviewing them, we then headed for the University Center through the metal detectors, and I remember sitting in a media area down on the floor. If memory serves me correctly, I saw one or two well-known national TV news White House correspondents.
I heard from someone else that one of the familiar national reporters worked on a crossword puzzle during much of the President’s speech.
I remember that President Reagan’s speech was primarily an uplifting one geared to the students, but he briefly referred to some national or international event, and that was all the White House correspondents referred to that night on the national TV news. But they did add that he had made the comment while speaking to some high school graduating seniors in Chattanooga.
I remember President Reagan had a really friendly manner in his speaking style, and I mentioned that to city editor Julius Parker when I returned to the paper. Mr. Parker remarked something like, “Sure he does. That is why they call him the Great Communicator.”
Cindy and I tried to call some other people who had attended the luncheon and ended up putting together a good story. For example, I located Central High School class president David Babb, who had sat by the President during the meal, and he remarked that the President had put the students at ease.
All the reports were that the President was quite congenial during the lunch and was talking so much he hardly had time to finish his meal – other than his dessert.
Twenty students and five teachers ate with him from the county school system (before the merger), while 18 students and seven teachers took part from the city schools.
Among those Cindy and I interviewed for the story were Red Bank student body president Lisa Turner, Jacqueline Boston and Mike Lyle from Kirkman, Jr. ROTC student David Loftis and Dena Newberry from Soddy-Daisy, valedictorian James Bevill from East Ridge, and teachers Pam Rector from Red Bank and Allene Ward from Brainerd.
Retired teacher Eloise Gann from Soddy Daisy Elementary also attended and was quoted.
One person also had sat at a table with McCallie School graduate Howard Baker, who was then the President’s chief of staff. He had come along with Labor Secretary Bill Brock, formerly of Lookout Mountain, and Education Secretary William Bennett.
Tom Griscom, then the White House director of communications and later the editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, was also heavily involved in the trip, I believe.
Later that night, I remember excitedly watching and recording all the local and national newscasts regarding the visit – including the local story on some Krystal meals being loaded onto Air Force One for the President and others to enjoy on the flight back to Washington.
By that time, I was emotionally filled up and satisfied as well from a memorable day.