Politics

Surprising lessons Ronald Reagan learned as a lifeguard on the Rock River

Before I accepted the part of a young Ronald ‘Dutch’ Reagan in the motion picture ‘Reagan,’ I didn’t know a whole lot about 40th president. After all, I was born the same year he finished his second term. However, I did begin to learn about how much of an iconic figure Reagan was as soon as I told my grandmother the news. ‘My baby, Ronald Reagan was so handsome,’ it was the first time I saw my Nonna fawn, hah.  

Then, I began to learn more about how much Reagan was really loved. When I would tell people about getting cast as a young Reagan, the conversation would immediately shift away from me, as folks would offer up a personal story of how Reagan touched their lives, and I found that incredibly endearing … it also made me realize how much pressure I was about to be under playing such a beloved figure. 

My role spans from the time period of his lifeguard days to when he was starting out as an actor. During his sophomore year in high school and for the next seven summers in Dixon, Illinois, Reagan was a lifeguard at Lowell Park’s swimming section of the Rock River. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  

As the story goes, he saved 77 lives during his time at Lowell Park. Reagan kept track of those rescues by cutting a notch in a log for each time he pulled someone in trouble out of the water. Reagan’s upbringing and young life helped shape his future as president. I was excited to play ‘Dutch’ as he was nicknamed early in life and help people discover what Reagan was like before he became president, especially for those who know little about him.  

Perhaps it’s a good time for my generation to see the story of the president known as The Great Communicator who, it was said, reached across the aisle that separates us. During a time when there’s obviously a huge political rift going on in our country, we need respectful dialogue. We also should not allow our different feelings to stop us from reaching across the divide. I hope our film will remind all Americans that what unites us is far greater than those things that separate us.  

I’m one of three actors playing Reagan in our film. Tommy Ragen kicks things off when Reagan faces his first life crisis, I pick up the baton in his later teens and then Dennis Quaid portrays Reagan during his time in Hollywood, then governor of California, then president. 

I get the lifeguard era when young Reagan learns important lessons that he will draw on later in life. While it may be true that some of those 77 saves he made may have been ‘saving’ damsels in distress who were looking for a creative way to meet the lifeguard, it’s also true that the Rock River was a dangerous body of water — so dangerous in fact, that today no swimming is allowed there.

I was excited to play ‘Dutch’ as he was nicknamed early in life and help people discover what Reagan was like before he became president, especially for those who know little about him.

It was at that river that the character I play learned a few lessons about life that would help later; learning to see the currents under the water that others can’t see, learning to deal with people not thanking you when you save them, and discovering that people don’t always understand that they’re in danger.  

Those are lessons we can all take to heart as we navigate the challenging waters of life.   

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