LIANE HANSEN, host:
It's Ronald Reagan's birthday today. The nation's 40th president would have turned 100. That's a big deal for the people of several small towns in northwest Illinois where Reagan grew up. The celebrations peak this weekend, but will continue through the rest of the year. From member station WNIJ, Susan Stephens reports.
SUSAN STEPHENS: Sitting eight to a table, Reagan fans are packing this country club, located in what feels like the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois - amidst the cornfields between Tampico and Dixon, where the 40th president was born and grew up. They're here to honor the only president born in Illinois, of course. But they're also here for Newt Gingrich, one of the many Republicans these days who are invoking Reagan's memory as they consider a run for the presidency themselves.
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): I think it's almost inconceivable that Reagan could have grown up in a large anonymous city and become Ronald Reagan. And it's certainly true, as far as I am concerned in all the years I've studied him, that while he left Illinois physically, Illinois never left him.
STEPHENS: Gingrich made it a point to premiere his documentary on the life of Reagan this weekend in the area where some people still call him Dutch.
CROWD: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear president, happy birthday to you.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. HELEN LAWTON: I'm Helen Lawton. I'm from Dixon, Illinois, went to high school here. Ronald lived next door to me in the house I was born in.
STEPHENS: It's getting harder to find people who had that kind of personal connection to Reagan in the Illinois towns he called home. Helen Lawton and Gertrude Childers were classmates, six years younger than the man they knew as Dixon's star athlete and lifeguard.
Ms. GERTRUDE CHILDERS: Dutch was a nice man. He was not only a movie star and a president, but he was just a good person.
STEPHENS: Childers has a special claim to fame: not only did Reagan frequently borrow the starry-eyed teenager's canoe, but he saved her life. She was number 70 of the 77 people Reagan claimed he pulled from the water during his seven years as a lifeguard at Dixon's Lowell Park. Someone had jumped off the dock and landed on Childers, knocking her unconscious.
Ms. CHILDERS: Dutch must have been watching because he was right there.
(Soundbite of people talking, bell ringing)
STEPHENS: About 20 miles away, R&B's Dutch Diner is now the only place to get a meal where Reagan was born. That's where Reagan's first cousins, once removed, are finishing up their coffee and pie. Ron and Milford Habben are a few decades younger than their famous cousin, but Ron Habben remembers meeting him once when he was a young boy.
Mr. RON HABBEN: Any ten-year-old kid, you know, he's just another guy. And anyway, his mother was visiting with my mother and my aunt, and he came back to pick her up at the folks' place.
STEPHENS: The Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum is just a few doors down from the Dutch Diner. That's where the people of Tampico are throwing a birthday party for their most famous son today - like they do every February 6th. This time, though, the cake will be a lot bigger to mark the biggest anniversary it's likely this town will ever see.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Stephens.
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