Residents recall Reagan visit to Sikeston
SIKESTON - As the nation prepares to say good-bye to Ronald Reagan, some from Sikeston are recalling when the movie-star-turned-politician visited Sikeston. On April 1, 1965, Reagan was the guest speaker for the Sikeston Chamber of Commerce's annual banquet.
During the meeting, Reagan spoke on the nation's economy, bringing to task the then Democratic administration's stand on foreign commitments, in particularly Vietnam. He was critical of the nation's tax structure and of a proposed Social Security law.
According to an April 2, 1965, article in The Daily Standard, Reagan spoke about America's heritage of freedom.
"We find that our present administration is hesitant to say that we are in war, and we are in a war between communism and capitalism. You can not have freedom unless we have the fruits of our toil and the right to own businesses."
Sikeston businessman Frank Ferrell recalls the hard line the future governor of California took on welfare during his speech that evening. "He thought people who were able to work shouldn't be drawing welfare," Ferrell said adding Reagan toned down his political philosophy after becoming governor.
While the speech he gave that evening was political, Sikeston residents who met with Reagan during and after the Chamber meeting agreed he was charming.
"All the girls liked him," said Ferrell with a chuckle.
Reagan's wit was exhibited during the evening as he quoted: "If all the economists in Washington were laid end to end, I don't think they could reach a decision." And the presentation of a plaque from the Chamber declaring him an "Honorary Cotton Picker of Southeast Missouri" drew a laugh from Reagan.
Fielding Potashnick, who served as the master of ceremonies for the Chamber banquet that evening, added Reagan "kept everything nice and smooth ... he was a wonderful man to talk to, you couldn't help but like him."
Potashnick believes that even then in the mid-1960s, Reagan had high political aspirations. He noted Reagan, who would be elected governor of California in 1966 and again in 1970, was making numerous speeches outside of California. Potashnick recalled the same year Reagan made a speech in Sikeston, he also spoke in Fulton. "He was going out and into the hinterlands and stirring up support a long time before we knew what he was up to. It was great that he was here ... who in the world then would have ever thought that he would go that far," said Potashnick.
Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 becoming the nation's 40th chief executive. He was re-elected in 1984 with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote and taking 49 out of 50 states for an Electoral College landslide.
Joel Montgomery, who hosted Reagan at his home following the Chamber meeting, said Reagan was easy to like, no matter what an individual's political leanings were. That evening, he said Reagan stood in the Montgomery living room, talking with guests and shaking hands for some three hours.
"He was a gracious fellow ... an intellectual fellow. ... He made quite an impression," recalled Montgomery. "He was a man of the people."
Since the announcement of Reagan's death on June 5, Montgomery said he has thought often of that evening in 1965. As guest speaker for the Chamber meeting, Montgomery said Reagan was complimentary of the community and Montgomery said he and many others liked Reagan's message on cutting taxes.
"I believe had he been voted on that night the Democrats would have voted along with the Republicans - he would have won hands down," said Montgomery.
Looking back, Montgomery said even then Reagan wouldn't avoid questions and would give opinions on issues. "He was that way during his presidency, too. Maybe some of his opinions might not have been popular but now we realize he was right. He had a unique ability to see through problems to the end results," said Montgomery, who pointed out Reagan's philosophy is still being followed today by politicians.
Describing Reagan as the right man for the times, Montgomery added: "The likes of Ronald Reagan won't come along again in this generation."
Reagan's body will lie in state today in the nation's Capitol until a funeral at the National Cathedral on Friday. It will then be returned to California for burial at the presidential library that evening.