“My Father at 100” by Ron Reagan

c.2011, Viking
$25.95 / $32.50 Canada
228 pages


How times change. Take Dad, for instance.

When you were three, Daddy could do anything. By the time you were ten, he was “Dad” and the shine on him was a little less bright. When you were eighteen, he was “the Old Man”, tarnished, clueless, and hopelessly out-of-date. But now, though, he’s probably Dad again and you can bet he’s relieved about that.

Life between father and child is played out every day, anonymously, in houses across the country. But what if your relationship with Dad was national news? Find out in “My Father at 100” by Ron Reagan.

From the day he was born on February 6, 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan was known as “Dutch” to everyone but his mother. He was a sensitive child, perhaps because his was a roving boyhood spent in several different towns. Dutch’s father hated racism and his mother was in favor of women’s emancipation – both, quite progressive for the times – and this childhood atmosphere belied the coldhearted-against-the-downtrodden reputation that plagued Dutch decades later.

As a youth, Dutch was known as a first-class swimmer and athlete. At age 15, he became a lifeguard and counted 77 lives saved during his tenure near a Dixon, Illinois riverbank. He was a fair-enough student, “obsessed” with football, but he didn’t consider politics as a career. On his college application, he said that his future included becoming a salesman. His mother expected more.

Because he lived his life in front of us as a movie star, politician, and Leader of the Free World, it’s sometimes hard to remember that Dutch had a life behind cameras. He was, of course, a husband, but he was a son, a brother, and a man, too. He was also a father trying to raise his children in the public eye.

Ron Reagan, shaken to realize that his father would’ve been a centenarian this year, went on a cross-country search for things he wondered about, but never knew. Dutch was a consummate storyteller, but what was embellished, what was suppressed, and why?

“I never felt particularly deprived of my father’s company,” he says. But there was so much left unsaid…

With a delightfully droll wit and the kind of honest viewpoint that only a sharp-tongued son can have, author Ron Reagan writes personally about the man many of us only really knew by what we saw on the news. But Reagan admits that he had lots to discover, too: on his journey of learning, he often had to use his imagination as he visualized where Dutch might have stood in his life, physically and emotionally.

What I best enjoyed about “My Father at 100” is that it’s filled with warmth, tenderness, humor, and retrospective realizations. Though father and son famously clashed at times, Reagan’s memoir ends with acceptance, love, and a bittersweet sense of finally understanding.

If you’re looking for a political biography, “My Father at 100” probably won’t satisfy you. If you want something that’s 10% politics and 90% personal, though, you’ll find this book to be 100% perfect.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.